Tuesday, November 22, 2011

DVD Reviews: House of the Damned and Lust for Vengeance

The reason these two reviews by Richard Gary are grouped together is that they are both made by African-American auteur Sean Weathers, who is based in Brooklyn, New York. He started making films in the genres he liked at a young age, usually with the assistance of producer Aswad Issa and cinematographer George Lopez.

Text © Richard Gary / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

House of the Damned: 15th Anniversary Edition
Written and directed by Sean Weathers
Full Circle Filmworks, 1996 / 2011
72 minutes, USD $9.95


This is the 15-year rerelease of indie filmmaker Sean Weather’s first film. Shot in glorious black and white, and mostly in Brooklyn, it doesn’t get very deep, but it’s built on an imaginative foundation.

Here’s the basic diggity (and I’m not giving away anything that’s not on either the box or common literature about the film): Liz (Valerie Alexander) comes home after her dad’s murder (in his own house). Living there is her youthful-looking mother, Emily (Monica Williams) and grandfather. They both have a secret that Liz is about to find out before the end of the night, which happens to be her 21st birthday. Four friends (aka the fodder help her celebrate, and while they all meet their fate in sometimes ghastly, other times questionable ways, Liz is actually the target of the whole affair, and so naturally is the only one that delays that doom.

There is a lot packed into the film, including witchcraft, slasher elements, zombies (the voodoo-forced-to-obey kind, not the braaaaaains ones), all with a haunted house feel. In many ways, this is a very successful film, especially considering it’s a first one by this collective, though one may say it arguably tries to cover too much. I don’t have a complaint with that, though, since Weathers doesn’t attempt to overlap genre types often enough to make it confusing. Heck, there is even a bit of nudity and a hint of lesbianism, as well as a moment of bad rapping (purposeful, I believe, considering a comment by Liz at one point).

I’m not sure what element he was using, be it VHS or s-VHS (I’m guessing one of those by the age of the film), but the black-and-white is highly grainy, and the handheld camera looks it. Still, there is a consistent tone throughout which holds up even after all this time and changes in technology (e.g., if this was some form of videotape, then odds are it was cut on editing bay equipment, rather than on a computer, which is much more time consuming and laborious).

There are a few holes here and there that are common with both indie and especially first-time writer/directors which are kind of blatant. For example, when one of the friends is done in while in the basement, we see the reaction of Liz and her erstwhile rapper boyfriend as they stand in the doorway, but we never see what they saw (the moment in is the trailer, below).

But the biggest flaw for me is the lighting, or lack thereof. The scenes on the roof and in the basement, for example, are creepy for certain, and in that they’re effective, but sometimes the shots are so dark that we’re left not being certain at what we’re seeing.

It is important to remember that writer / director Sean Weathers was 16 when he made this film, not actually something that is well-publicized, but his IMDB bio states he was born in 1980. For someone that young age, this is a pretty complex feature with lots of elements. I’m guessing many of the actors are among the same age group, and good on them for that.

It’s obvious what some of the roots of this film are, such as the Evil Dead and The Return of the Living Dead series. Weathers is evidently a fan of the genre, and that he wants to create his own and give back is a beautiful thing.

As far as I know, none of Weathers’ films, including this one, went the theater route, but rather direct to home market. This was actually quite smart maneuvering on his part, especially if he hit the horror convention circuit. Bet they did really well locally at the neighborhood video stores that were prevalent at the time.

The extras include some of his subsequent trailers, such as this one and the film below, and others like Hookers in Revolt (2006). There are also outtakes and clips from his The Unfinished Works of Sean Weathers (2004).

There are two interesting featurettes also included. One is a present-day interview with the lead actress, Valerie Alexander, who discusses what the shooting experience was like, filmed by an unseen interviewer (a self-deprecating Weathers). Some of the questions are just plain worthless, such as querying which male cast members would she “marry, fuck, or kill” The more interesting bits were actual anecdotes about the filming. The second short takes the viewer back to the house in the present, and starting from top to bottom, Weathers discusses the shooting with the camera person. The basement part is as creepy as the film, so that’s effective.

Lust for Vengeance: 10th Anniversary Explicit Edition
Written and directed by Sean Weathers
Full Circle Filmworks, 2001 / 2011
85 minutes, USD $9.95


The director, Sean Weathers, watched over 100 Giallo films before he made this picture. What’s a Giallo? He explains in a title card at the beginning: Giallo is the name for a distinct set of Italian thrillers from the 60’s [sic] that combined crime, murder, eroticism, nudity, mystery and whodunits, with stylish visuals.

Weathers had come a long way in the five years from his first release, above. He seems more assured about his direction, and the narrative is complex, yet cleaner. Ah, yes, the storyline.

Five women who have been friends since childhood are being picked off, one by one, possibly by a male acquaintance from their junior high days named Michael Richards (I am assuming that he was named for the “Kramer” actor, ironically half a decade before his racist rant) who had, after some false accusations, accosted one of them and was sent away to the sanitarium. The story of the events that surround these women meeting their fate is told to us, as described in another early title card, in five separate chapters (averaging about 13 minutes), in non-linear order. Helpfully, though, we are told the order by each chapter’s title card, such as “Anna (4).” If this sounds confusing, it’s actually not while watching the film, which is kudos to Weathers. There is very little suspense on who is the killer, though he is dressed in black leather with a motorcycle helmet with dark visor (what confused me is the person in disguise who kills Stephanie (2) looks to be female…).

Each of these women has a vice, be it drugs, bulimia, or sexual addiction, and we get to see it all in detail. While not stated, I am assuming that their relationship with this guy from their past who was seen leaving the first killing (victim’s name is Jennifer Lopez!), according to a police detective who questions the women a few times, has affected them to the point where they do these self-abusive behaviors as an escape from the memory.

Using grainy video to emulate 16mm, I am again assuming (let me know, Sean), the camera often floats around the actors (who are fully nude at some point or another, including women and most of the men), in a very Mario Bava way. While there are few sharp zooms and super close-ups of eyes, as is common in Giallo (especially Dario Argento), Weathers does an interesting thing with the film’s hue: whether the film is in black and white or color, there are extreme tints used so the image is either red, yellow, blue, green, orange, or others, varying from scene to scene. This was a really nice touch.

As with the previous film, there is a dark sense of humor, such as a character here named being Putney Swope (if you haven’t seen the film by that name, you really need to do so; not only is it smart and hilarious, it has a similar feel to Weathers’ and was directed by Robert Downey Sr.). Another is when a character is being held by the killer with his hand over her mouth, and a roommate walks right by shielding her eyes because she thinks the noise she’s hearing is her pal having sex.

Many of the actors in this film are non-pro, with this or other Weathers’ films as their only credits, but they all do relatively well for their experience at the time, and the nature of the film (i.e., a low budget indie). However, they all bravely are willing to simulate (I’m assuming, once again) sex or at least be naked as they wind their way through their first cinematic endeavor in most cases.

Weathers makes few missteps, which is common in the genre. A key one is that we never see Lisa (5), the last on the murderer’s list, done in. Does she survive? This is unclear. And why is someone who is smitten with Stephanie killed, other than being a clingy creep? I believe perhaps he was in her apartment (as he’s smelling a female’s underwear at the time), but if so, how did the killer get him out? Another is a gratuitous lesbian scene on a beach between two characters in the Jennifer section that have nothing I can tell to do with the actual storyline. One minute they’re complaining about their boyfriends, and the next they’re nude and, well… The biggest bug in my bonnet, though, is that I would have liked to have had more detail about Richards and his motivations.

The extras are similar to the first film above, with trailers for Weathers’ films, and clips of outtakes of various projects. In one section are more title cards, this time with trivia about the making of the film. There is also an interview with Weathers on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the few location shots in the film outside of apartments. Here he discusses the film’s progress, but I would have liked to have had a more thorough commentary track, as well. Weathers is a remarkable guy with interesting ideas, and his work process seems to be something worth hearing.

While I figured out the final shot of the film about 20 minutes in, this was still a fun ride to see where it was going, and how it got there. As a low budget indie goes, sure there is more that ‘Weathers and crew can do to improve, but all things considered – especially comparison to some other films of this nature in the genres he’s hooked into – it shows so much promise. With all sincerity, I would love to see what Weathers could do with some real mentor guidance and bigger bucks backing him up. That could prove his real mettle or his downfall. It would be nice if someone gave him the chance to find out. Meanwhile, I will pay respects to Weather’s Full Circle Filmworks, whose slogan is “Stickin’ it to the man 24/7.”

1 comment:

  1. Sounds interesting, will check them out. Thanks!