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Mandao of the Dead

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Jay lives a simple life, but that all changes in the days around Halloween when the veil between worlds is thinnest. A series of strange events leads him down an unbelievable road. Jay discovers he can astral project, and he inadvertently witnesses his nephew Jackson’s ex-girlfriend murder a man. Because of Jay’s newfound abilities, he is able to see and speak to the ghost of the murdered man. The clock is running out of time for Jay to save the man – and his own sanity.

The masterful Scott Dunn (Schlep) not only wrote the screenplay for Mandao of the Dead, but he also directed and starred in the film. At first glance, this film looks like any other low-budget indie horror movie that might have a few laughs, but is overall a crass and forgettable film. Yet Dunn’s film actually has an intricate and compelling plot, hilarious characters, and more than a few heart-felt moments. The film ends up being a strange mix of elements that end up working well together. It’s one-part supernatural horror, one-part vampire movie, one-part murder mystery, and one-part buddy comedy. Somehow, all of these elements work well together.

One of the aspects of the plot that works surprisingly well is the lack of explanations. We don’t know why Jay is suddenly able to astral project, except for a few hints here and there. It is suggested that Jackson’s ex-girlfriend is a vampire, but it’s a bit ambiguous as to whether she just think she’s a vampire or she actually is a vampire. It leaves the viewers as ignorant to the truth as the characters, which works well in this film. It also forces the audience to simply accept things as being the way they are. This is important in how the film tends to go through different dimensions and different timelines. If you simply accept these parts of the plot as being this way, without further question, it makes for a humorous adventure.

Each character – and the actors playing the characters – manage to make me laugh in this film. Dunn shines wearing one of his many hats as the star of the film, Jay. He is probably the most practical and pragmatic character, which leads to some humorous interactions when he discovers his new abilities. It is amazing to see Dunn perform so well in the role that he also wrote and directed. Sean McBride (Schlep) offers an interesting juxtaposition to Dunn’s performance as Jay’s adult nephew, Jackson. Jack is a loser who sleeps in a tent in Jay’s living room, and he is only Jay’s nephew in the loosest sense of the word. McBride gives a hilarious, dimwitted, yet likeable portrayal of this goofy character. These two actors play off each other in a way that makes the film even more entertaining. Other equally entertaining performances can be found in Gina Gomez (Schlep), David Gallegos (2-Headed Shark Attack), Marisa Hood (The Post Relationship), and Sean Liang (2Survive).

For the most part, the visual effects in Mandao of the Dead are reserved for the scenes when Jay is astral projecting. There are three methods used to create a distinct look: lighting, distorted sound, and the use of haze or smoke. When Jay is astral projecting the world loses a lot of its color, resulting in a grey, monotone look. The only time more vibrant colors are used in these scenes is through neon lighting – or when the point of view switches to the real world. Not only does this add a lot of visual interest to the film, but it also ensures the viewers can tell the difference between the real world and the dream-like world where ghosts and astral forms dwell.

Mandao of the Dead is a surprisingly well-made indie horror comedy that has heart and delivers plenty of laughs. Dunn proves with this film that he can excel at any role, whether it be director, writer, or actor. The intricate and humorous story he creates gives viewers something that will keep them entertained from start to finish. It has its cheesier and over-the-top moments, but they work quite well with the overall tone of the film. The performances, the plot, and the visuals all lend themselves to a fun flick. While you should catch this film as soon as you can, I would wager it will end up on many horror fans’ “31 Days of Horror” film lists this year.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

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The Night Watchmen

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A group of night watchmen and their new recruit keep watch over the offices of a newspaper. One night, when everyone is staying late to do inventory, a coffin is accidentally delivered to the building. Little do the night watchmen know that the late great Blimpo the clown is in that coffin and he met an untimely death in Romania. Blimpo is now a vampire and soon the night watchmen find themselves fighting for their lives as people in the office are turned into bloodthirsty monsters.

Of all the films at the Phoenix Film Festival and International Horror and Sci-fi Film Festival, I can say without a doubt that The Night Watchmen is the most fun horror film they programmed. This film really has everything one could want from a gory horror-comedy; lots of laughs, awesome practical effects, hilarious actors, and a fun story. The filmmakers managed to combine different things that scare people in order to create a spooky, hilarious hybrid. Clowns and vampires can be terrifying on their own. When you join them into one “clownpire,” then you get absolute insanity. The filmmakers also make the vampires in the film almost more zombie-like until they become a bit older and have more blood. This is smart because it allows them to create more carnage and excitement because the young vampires are essentially feral, wild animals.

Obviously the entire concept of this film is hilarious, but there are smaller details that elevate it to a higher level of humor. The three night watchmen and their new hire make up quite the team. The leader of their team is the typical buff ex-military guard. He is more experienced than the others so he naturally takes the lead. This character is hilarious because he fits into a certain stereotype, until the craziness begins and then you see that he isn’t quite the macho man he appears to be. The leader’s best friend and fellow night watchman is described in the film as “the worst black guy ever.” He commonly says common phrases incorrectly and enjoys things a stereotypical black man would not enjoy. This is a trait that can be seen in most of the main characters. The filmmakers do a great job of introducing caricatures and stereotypes of different people, but then show that they actually do not fit into that mold at all. It adds a more subtle layer of humor amidst all the fart and sex jokes.

The interesting and complex characters would be nothing without the actors who play them. The Night Watchmen is filled with laugh out loud performances from the lead characters all the way down to the smallest roles. All of the watchmen deliver performances wrought with humor and even a certain level of complexity not typically seen in this kind of horror-comedy. Ken Arnold (Men in Black 3, Lovely Molly) plays tough-guy leader, Ken. Arnold adds many layers to his character’s personality making him much more engaging and lovable. Kevin Jiggetts (Concussion, Won’t Back Down) plays the equally lovable Jiggetts, Ken’s best friend and the aforementioned “worst black guy ever.” Jiggetts does an amazing job of acknowledging the stereotypes people expect his character to fall into and then he completely shatters that stereotype. Max Gray Wilbur (Thrill Kill) is yet another example of breaking expectations in his portrayal of the rookie who is fondly known as “Rajeeve.”  One would expect him to be the hero of the story since he is the young fresh face, but the audience quickly learns that is not the case. Then there is Kara Luiz (Jerks with Cameras, American Poltergeist 3) as the strong female lead of Karen. I love the character of Karen and Luiz’s portrayal of her because she is not a damsel in distress. In the workplace she ranks higher than the male leads and she takes charge and refuses to be the helpless victim. Other great performances come from Dan DeLuca (Crazy Eights), Tiffany Shepis (Tales of Halloween), James Remar (Unnatural), and of course Gary Peebles as the great Blimpo.

This is a very gory, bloody film. It would have failed miserably without those who create the amazing practical effects. Every wound and bit of gore is very well done. It is definitely over the top at times when looking at the amount of blood and guts, but it works in this kind of film. The creature design for the vampires is one of the best aspects of the practical effects. I appreciate that, instead of the usual two elongated fangs and alluring demeanor, the filmmakers broke the vampire mold (much like with the main characters) by having a mouth full of sharp teeth and rabid behavior. The vampires are feral, wild beasts instead of the usual calm and composed sex symbols. It makes them more frightening and dangerous, especially as they slowly begin to gain more intelligence with each drop of blood they drink. I also love that they make Blimpo stand out as the leader by making him the strongest, most intelligent, and making him appear larger than everyone else. Blimpo is not a clown you would want to meet in a dark alley.

The Night Watchmen is an insanely fun and bloody ride that is sure to tickle the funny bone of horror fans everywhere. In this film you get lots of gore, excitement, and laughs. While the fart jokes may go on a little too long, the filmmakers make up for it by giving the audience surprisingly complex characters. Those complex characters are portrayed by an all-around fantastic cast that has electric chemistry between them. I not only want to see more of these characters, but I also can’t wait to see what the filmmakers come up with next.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

The Transfiguration

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Milo is a teen boy living in a rough urban neighborhood. Alienated from his peers for being weird, he spends most of his time watching vampire movies. As his mental illness and fascination with vampirism takes over his life he meets Sophie, another troubled teen who moves into his building. Now Milo is going through an internal struggle between his obsession and his yearning to be with the girl he cares about.

The Transfiguration is a beautiful story. Milo clearly has some kind of mental disorder. He not only is fascinated with vampires, but he actually believes he is one. He believes it to the point where he will kill a stranger to drink their blood. To him it isn’t wrong, it is just what he has to do in order to live. Then Sophie comes into the picture. She has many of her own mental issues, but when compared to Milo she seems like a relatively normal girl. When she enters his life, Milo is forced to look at his actions for what they are and take his mental illness head on. Not only is this a rather depressing look at mental illness in youth, but specifically inner city kids who don’t have the resources to get the help they need.

The plot has elements that will appeal to many audiences. It is mysterious, thought provoking, and horrific in its own way. What drives a lot of this story is not only the social commentary threaded throughout, but also how it makes you question what is real. Is Milo just an unstable teen, or could he possibly be an actual vampire? Watching the story unravel in a way that gives you clues as to the origin of his thirst for blood is truly fascinating. The only qualm I have with this film is that the pacing can be very slow at times. This is a more character and story driven film, rather than relying on lots of action and excitement, but there are still many times where virtually nothing happens. The audience often watches Milo walk around town, without any dialogue or true purpose to the scenes except to create a feeling of unease. There are likely some scenes that can be cut to make the film move at a somewhat quicker pace without losing any of the unsettling atmosphere.

The two young leads in The Transfiguration are some of the best new talent I have seen in a long time. Eric Ruffin (The Good Wife, Nature Calls) is simply incredible as the disturbed Milo. Ruffin portrays Milo as emotionless throughout most of the film, but always shows a bit of heart when Sophie is involved. He shows the audience that Milo definitely has issues that need to be taken care of, but underneath it all he isn’t a bad person. Chloe Levine (The OA, King Jack) is also stunning as Sophie. One could argue that she is equally as disturbed as Milo, just in a vastly different way, and Levine does an amazing job of conveying that to the audience. These are two young actors you will want to pay attention to.

Visually this is a very interesting film. It isn’t necessarily beautiful or shot in a way that makes it look like art. Instead it is somewhat gritty. The colors are dulled so everything has a bit of a grey, dirty tinge to it. This is an interesting choice by the filmmakers, and a smart one. It adds to the gloomy, depressing feeling and emphasizes the themes seen throughout the film. The filmmakers also chose to go very minimal and realistic with any scenes involving blood and murder. Again, this is smart because this is a film very much rooted in the reality of mental illness. If they had gone more the gory horror route then it would take away from the message being sent. All around it is stunning the same way abandoned, crumbling buildings can be stunning.

The Transfiguration is not only a sort of sad love story, but it is also a story of unchecked mental illness. Those who need it most do not get the help they need, and this film shows the effects that has on the individual and those around them. The only true negative about this film is the pacing can drag for unfortunately long periods of time. Yet it is still one of the most interesting and thought-provoking horror films of the decade. The Transfiguration is able to blur the genre lines by the many themes it takes on. Because of that, it is something that has the ability to bring in non-horror audiences in a way that not many other horror films can. It is powerful, it has two phenomenal leads, and it forces audiences to take a deep look into mental illness and the state of inner city youth. The Transfiguration is definitely a must-see film.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

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