Documentary

Fantasia Review: Hail to the Deadites

Horror fans are often some of the best, most dedicated fans out there. This year’s Fantasia International Film Festival highlights one group of fans by screening the documentary Hail to the Deadites.

Documentary writer and director, Steve Villeneuve (Under the Scares, The Mask of James Henry), focuses on fans of The Evil Dead film franchise. The franchise includes the three original films, The Evil Dead, The Evil Dead II, and Army of Darkness, as well as a “requel” of the same name and a TV series, Ash vs. Evil Dead, that lasted for three seasons on STARZ. Villeneuve sought out fans of the franchise, known as “Deadites,” to learn more about why they love the films and how they show that love.

Hail to the Deadites introduces many individuals who are considered superfans of the franchise. These are people who go to every convention to meet those who worked in front of and behind the camera. They are collectors of props, action figures, posters, clothing, and other physical media related to the film. It’s fascinating to not only see how much people love the films, but also the lengths they are willing to go for the film, including spending exorbitant amounts of money and traveling across oceans.

It is interesting to see how fans typically align with one of the three original films more than the others. Often is has to do with whatever film they saw first. Tonally, The Evil Dead, The Evil Dead II, and Army of Darkness are very different films, despite all following the same character and being from the mind of writer and director Sam Raimi.

Hail to the Deadites also interviews the many crew and cast members, especially from the first two films. This includes the legendary Bruce Campbell, who played protagonist Ash in all three films and the TV show. These interviews dive into the popularity of the film and how fans’ love of the franchise helps many of their careers. There are a few interactions between fans and individuals involved with the film, specifically Campbell himself and practical effects guru Tom Sullivan, that brought tears to my eyes.

Hail to the Deadites brings light to a fandom that has been going strong since 1981. Villenueve not only highlights how the fans love the franchise and helped to make it such a success, but how that love helped the careers of those who worked on the films. The documentary also shows a connection between fans and celebrities that seems to be unique to the horror genre and can be seen in all the horror-specific conventions where fans can meet celebrities from their favorite films as well as other fans. Hail to the Deadites is a fascinating documentary for any film lover to watch, but it’s a must-watch for fans of The Evil Dead franchise.

Fantasia Review: Clapboard Jungle

Fantasia International Film Festival has always been a haven for indie genre filmmakers. It makes sense that their 2020 lineup would include a documentary about the journey of an indie filmmaker. Clapboard Jungle: Survivng the Independent Film Business is the result of five years’ work from filmmaker Justin McConnell (Broken Mile, Lifechanger). 

McConnell’s documentary takes audiences on his five-year journey as he attempts to get multiple film projects made and distributed. His projects include multiple feature-length films and a few short films made between projects. We get to watch as McConnell utilizes various methods to attempt to get his films produced, into the film festival circuit, and distributed. He supplements his own journey with interviews with individuals involved in different aspects of filmmaking such as producers, writers, directors, casting directors, and more. There are even big name filmmakers, including Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) and George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead), alongside indie darlings including Jenn Wexler (The Ranger) and Gigi Saul Guerrero (Culture Shock). 

Clapboard Jungle is effective in authentically conveying what happens when trying to make an indie genre film. Often times the filmmaking process can seem glamorous and straight-forward. McConnell shows that is not the case. He explains how the filmmaking process from concept to distribution is long, complex, and many films never see the light of day. Clapboard Jungle also makes it clear that there is no one correct way to make a film. While the audience primarily sees the methods McConnell employs to make his films, we also see multiple interviews with different filmmakers at varying levels of their careers and tips for making a film. It quickly becomes clear that each one of them has different advice.

While much of the documentary focuses on McConnell’s journey, he also acknowledges the journeys of others. Specifically, McConnell points out that he is a white male in a predominantly white male industry. He points out that, despite how difficult his film journey has been over this five-year period, women and people of color have a much more difficult time getting their films made. This may be a small part of the overall narrative, but it really forces one to think just how much women and POC have to do to make a film after watching the trials and tribulations McConnell experiences.

Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business is essential viewing not just for filmmakers, but for anyone involved in the film industry. The documentary is sometimes brutally honest, but also provides helpful tips for budding filmmakers who are trying to make a film. Based on this and McConnell’s other recent film, Lifechanger (which I was able to review last year), he is clearly very passionate about what he does and skilled at it. Normally I give a number rating for films, but I don’t like to do that for documentaries as they are often very personal to those who made the film. Instead I will say this is a must-watch for anyone interested in the indie filmmaking process.

To Hell and Back: The Kane Hodder Story

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Every horror fan knows Kane Hodder, whether they realize it or not. Sometimes he is a stuntman in the background of a film, other times the killer under layers of makeup or a mask, or even front and center in your favorite horror movie. His most famous film roles are from the Friday the 13th and Hatchet franchises, playing the main villains in both. While many people know of him because of his work in the film industry, not many can say they truly know who the man is. In the documentary To Hell and Back: The Kane Hodder Story, audiences get to learn everything there is to know about their favorite horror villain.

The film does a great job of going through Hodder’s entire film history. We get to learn how he started doing stunts just to get a reaction out of his friends, and how that eventually led to him auditioning for a stunt film role. The documentary takes extra care to go over Hodder’s two biggest roles as Jason Voorhees, starting with Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, and Victor Crowley of the Hatchet films. Hodder has killed more people on screen than any other actor, and a majority of them are from those two fan-favorite franchises. It’s only natural that a lot of time would be spent on Hodder’s time in those films.

Looking at the hulking man we all know as Kane Hodder, it is hard to imagine anyone trying to pick a fight with him. Yet when Hodder was younger, he was bullied and beaten. While eventually he learned to hit back, which got rid of the bullies, he still went through a lot of hardship along the way. Hodder not only tells the story of his childhood trauma, but he uses this time to talk about the amount of physical and emotional harm bullying can do. He even discusses how often bullying can lead to suicide. Hearing that someone who plays Jason Voorhees went through the same experiences of bullying as many others not only reveals Hodder’s softer side, but it allows fans to relate to him on a more personal level.

Fans love meeting Hodder at various conventions. He always takes the time to talk to his fans, and if you want a photo of him strangling you he will strangle you for real. Anyone who has met the man in person has likely noticed the burn scars all over his body. For years the origin of those scars was kept relatively secret. While I won’t go into all the details, I will say that Hodder not only describes the true events that led to his horrific burns, but there are also still photos of the event shown. What’s even more horrific than the accident itself is the long recovery process that followed. While this is a horrible and tragic event in Hodder’s life, it actually benefited his career. Not only does he still do fire stunts to this day, but he also takes care to make sure that every stunt he performs (or coordinates) is the safest it can possibly be.

To Hell and Back: The Kane Hodder Story is an absolute must for any horror fan. It shows a side of Hodder rarely seen by fans, and it allows us to connect with him even more. The documentary includes some great clips, images, and interviews with Hodder. It also has interviews with Hodder’s friends and other big names in the horror film industry such as Adam Green, Robert Englund, Bruce Campbell, and Cassandra Peterson (aka Elvira). The documentary is equal parts funny, interesting, and heartfelt. Not only do I recommend this to avid horror fans, but I think even non-horror fans will appreciate learning about one of the greatest stuntmen alive.

OVERALL RATING: MUST SEE*

*Since this is a documentary about a person’s life, it didn’t feel right giving it a number rating out of 10. Instead I am giving it a “MUST SEE” designation. I strongly urge people to see this documentary, especially if you get the chance to see it on the big screen.

Strawberry Flavored Plastic

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When two aspiring documentarians find a man who they believe is their perfect subject, they begin making their film. Unfortunately, they discover a little too late that his story wasn’t quite true. Instead of committing a single crime that he was imprisoned for, he has committed numerous murders, and he has yet to be caught. The filmmakers find themselves in an interesting position. By continuing to make their documentary they put themselves at risk in many ways, but it may just be worth the infamy.

Colin Bemis’ Strawberry Flavored Plastic surprised me in a number of ways. Going into the film I had certain expectations of what I was about to watch, and for the most part the film managed to subvert those expectations. I assumed a large part of the plot was going to be the beginning of filming the documentary and the eventual discovery that Noel, the subject of the documentary, had not been totally honest. Surprisingly, Bemis chooses to only mention this. Instead the film begins after the documentarians decide to continue filming despite their discovery. Initially, this felt like a missed opportunity for some interesting drama in the film, but it actually works better with the documentary style. The film is about Noel. It would be odd for the “documentary” to spend a lot of time on the drama behind the camera instead of Noel. Although part of me still wants to know how Noel’s true nature was discovered when he has never been caught by the police.

The film feels like a true documentary in the filming style and how it spends a majority of the time diving deeper into Noel’s life, who he is as a person, and why he does the things he does. While the behind the scenes drama in the discovery of Noel’s murderous ways was rightly left out to keep the feel of a true documentary, there are other scenes that do the opposite. While some of the scenes make sense for the storytelling of the film, many of them simply add subplots that are unnecessary. Most of these scenes are there to provide more information about the documentarians. Some of these work well because they relate back to the process of making the documentary and become ultimately important to the story.

When you first hear Noel speak it may seem odd. He speaks in a very formal, polite, and old fashioned way that isn’t what you would expect from a killer. It feels out of place until the audience learns that he grew up watching old movies from the 40’s and how those movies influenced him. This minor detail explains an interesting bit of background for the character that makes him even more complex. The film is shot like a classic documentary, relying on “confessional” style interviews, a single camera following the subject, and strategically placed cameras to catch more candid shots. Since Noel is a killer, the filmmakers choose to take an extra step and give him a body cam to use when he gets the “itch.” The first time we see Noel use the body cam is quite jarring because he goes from being a very polite, soft spoken man to a raving maniac who swears and says things like “sugar tits.” At first it seems out of place, but again when paying attention to the details of Noel’s life the puzzle pieces fit together in a way that is logical for the character.

Aidan Bristow (Black Widows, L.A. Macabre) stars as the complex and troubled Noel. Since the film focuses on Noel’s character, it is important to have a strong leading man to drive the film. Luckily for these filmmakers, Bristow delivers a powerful, fascinating, and sometimes disturbing performance. The film often plays with the idea of nature vs. nurture when it comes to why Noel gets the urge to kill, and the way Bristow portrays Noel convinces audiences he isn’t a bad guy, he just commits a brutal murder every now and again. Nicholas Urda (Audition) plays one of the filmmakers, Errol. This documentary is Errol’s passion project, and Urda does a great job of conveying that. Overall Urda performs well, but there are times where is dialogue comes across a bit awkward or overly formal. It is difficult to say if this is due to his performance or because some of the ways in which Noel speaks bleed into Errol’s dialogue. Andres Montejo also does well in his first film acting roll as the second filmmaker, Ellis. He brings a bit more lightheartedness to the otherwise serious film.

Strawberry Flavored Plastic takes a thought provoking and unexpected look into the mind of a killer. While initial reactions may draw comparisons to other recent found footage films, such as Creep, a closer look reveals something all its own. Bemis creates a film that digs at the psychology behind a sociopath, subtly debating nature vs. nurture, and making audiences question what makes a person good or bad. There are certain scenes that take the film out of the documentary style, but for the most part this is a rare “mockumentary” that feels like an authentic documentary. Bemis’ story and direction coupled with Bristow’s fantastic performance makes for a film with a surprising amount of heart that will keep audiences contemplating what they watched long after the film has ended.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10