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The Devil in White (2014)
Indie Horror That Stands Out of the Pack
Zombies, vampires, ghosts, slashers... There's an over-saturation of indie horror and too often we just see the same thing again and again. So with that said, THE DEVIL IN WHITE is hugely refreshing in itself for feeling like something we just don't see much of in large volumes. Cronenbergian body (and mind) horror. And it's a horror movie about drugs too. While that's not a new premise, THE DEVIL IN WHITE might be the best of that lot.
THE DEVIL IN WHITE also stands as what is probably the best post-SCARLET WORM (Michael Fredianelli's masterpiece) Fredianelli directed film so far. While the others were (for the most part) much more ambitious and dealing in genre and subject matter I tend to prefer, there was just something off about them and it seemed hard not to notice their faults. THE DEVIL IN WHITE is different. It's not a perfect film sure, but it's a very technically sound movie and pretty believable in the effects, storytelling, and performances.
While the movie is a bit of a slow burn, it opens strong (great pre-title and title sequences) and remains constantly gripping until the end. The film seemingly toys with the audience a bit as it doesn't really have a standard protagonist the way most stories do. It's a bit like Hitchcock's PSYCHO in this regard. You can't really be sure who the protagonist is at first and it makes for a thrilling ride. Surprises are abound and it's a very gripping and suspense filled movie.
While not every performances is top-notch, one of THE DEVIL IN WHITE's best assets is how well acted it is. Jeremy Koerner is a powerhouse as the evil cult leader Archie. While acting under Fredianelli's direction in two films prior, this is the film where Koerner is really utilized and able to shine the most. Koerner is infinitely menacing as Archie and gives a very creepy and believable performance. Other stand-out cast members include Vanessa Leigh (in a somewhat smaller role but performing great as always), Wild Dogs regular Michael Nosé (in what is probably his finest acting turn), and Peter Stylianos (in a small part again, but still making an impression). Beth Bemis (while I didn't enjoy her performance as much as the others) is also very memorable in her role as middle-aged mother Piper-- a character and role uncommon for a Wild Dogs Production (or at least with this type of treatment and amount of screen-time given).
Another major strong-point are the film's visual effects by Michael A. Martinez. Martinez returns from somewhat of an absence from Wild Dogs and boy does it make a difference. All the VFX on display in the film are convincing and hardly even appear digital (or obviously faked) if at all. The film isn't really an action or effects heavy piece per say, but the seamless nature of the movie's VFX really sells it. On that note, it's important to say that this is a high-impact and affecting horror film, but it's not full of explicit violence and gore to the extent a lot of others are. While Director Fredianelli really has a talent for filming the shocking and explicit, he also knows how to be just as effective for what he doesn't show when it comes to horror. As in his earlier horror movie THE BLACKFACE KILLER, this balance is on full display here.
In sum, THE DEVIL IN WHITE is at the top of its game as far as indie horror goes. It works well within the confines of a low-budget and doesn't overreach its bounds. It also seems to bring something relatively fresh to the table and doesn't feel like more of the same. And hell, David Cronenberg would be proud.
Nothing Normal About It (In A Good Way)
Richard Griffin's latest film NORMAL had a lot of mystery surrounding it. I had figured out early on before the release that it would likely center around a serial-killer, but it almost seemed like few details were purposefully given. Such is appropriate though as NORMAL is indeed a very shadowy and mysterious film with a good amount of twists and turns. Despite Griffin making clarification that the film is not horror (the genre he is best known for working in), this distinction is a bit blurred here. NORMAL is a dark film and while it plays more with psychology and drama rather than standard thrills and chills, the movie certainly has enough horrific, unsettling and grim content in it. However, even if it doesn't play like a straight horror film, NORMAL is probably Griffin's scariest and affecting movie to date.
This is a movie (unlike most of the director's other films) that is dark and dead serious. Probably closest to Griffin's EXHUMED in tone and feel and the fact that much of the cast in crew is repeated here. For instance, the movie is all kinds of bleak and has a similar claustrophobic feel to it. Ken Willinger (who collaborates again with Griffin as director of photography here for the second time) crafts a similar look (albeit in color) and makes use of some really contrasty, low-key film noir type lighting that makes the film's aesthetic about as dark as its subject matter. Willinger really shines in his work here and fully demonstrates his massive talent for cinematography. On display are some truly amazing shots that rival the best work of a Roger Deakins-- my favorite of which features actor Michael Thurber walking through the streets of downtown Boston at night illuminated by a plume of sewer steam. This shot brought to mind a similar shot in THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD and as with there, it gave me goosebumps.
Even if NORMAL is a rather unsettling film for much of its running time, it's also oddly beautiful in a lot of ways. Due to its music score at times and aforementioned Willinger cinematography, NORMAL almost has a Terrence Malick like quality to it in the visuals and storytelling. Just a poignant and powerful film and the performances help sell it. Michael Reed is excellent in the lead and comes off as quite creepy and terrifying in his portrayal of a twisted serial killer. Elyssa Baldassarri also shines in the role of Kate and her performance says so much just due to her demeanor and facial expressions alone. The rest of the cast is generally well utilized and Michael Thurber always steals whatever scene he's in no matter how short his screen time.
All in all, nothing is really 'normal' about the film NORMAL. It's a film you'll no doubt be impacted by and probably hard-pressed to forget.
The Iceman (2012)
Contemporary Made Crime Cinema At Its Finest
THE ICEMAN was on my movie watch-list since I first heard of it. A true-crime film about an infamous hit-man spanning from the 1960s-1980s starring a contemporary actor I don't actually hate (Michael Shannon) in the titular role. Now I admittedly had low expectations for this film considering neigh every limited-release movie I've went to see has turned out to be a disappointment. Even films from 70s/80s genre directors like Friedkin and Cronenberg (heck, even Don Coscarelli to a degree) turned out to be more on the artsy/fartsy side and just seem to do anything but leave me cold by their weirdness, non-endings or pretentiousness. THE ICEMAN is a movie (while somewhat of a clichéd depiction of the eras it is set) feels closest to a legit 70s/80s crime movie than most new films I've seen recently that seemingly try to achieve so (except for maybe Walter Hill's BULLET TO THE HEAD, but that's more on the action side of things). Great performance by Michael Shannon (the guy has charisma even when playing a brutal killer who "doesn't give a sh!t") and some great familiar "crime" faces like Ray Liotta and Robert Davi. Appearances by David Schwimmer (at parts looking like poliziotteschi hench Riccardo Petrazzi and then Jesus from THE BIG LEWBOWSKI) and a sleazy James Franco are worth noting...I guess. The film has good cinematography (none of this shaky cam and MTV style crap), minimal (and when noticeable) appropriate uses of CGI, and plenty of good practical effects like the hard-hitting squibs and stunt driving. These elements (and Robert Davi's worthy of framing weathered face) were enough to gain my tough, gritty 70s crime film fan seal of approval. We really need more serious, medium sized (both in scope and budget) films about real-life like this out there these days.
Black Cat Whiskey (2013)
Almost, But Still Not Quite There Yet
One day (hopefully sooner than later) I'll be able to review a Wild Dogs movie without having to compare it to THE SCARLET WORM. Until then I'm going to have to say that at least Fredianelli's latest effort BLACK CAT WHISKEY seems to out-do all of the company's stuff post WORM.
BLACK CAT WHISKEY is a 1930s Georgia set (yet filmed in Northern California surprisingly pretty convincingly) depression era gangster film. It's really quite impressive in that regard as the sets, props, vehicles and locations included in the production all look great. Even after doing several period films I'm inclined to think that Fredianelli did this time period/setting the most justice oddly enough (I think the only thing the anachronism-spotting history geek in me caught were the questionable ribbed glassware that looks like the stuff found in my kitchen today). It's definitely not an overstatement to say this film is easily among the two or three best looking in the Wild Dogs catalog by far.
The selection of the cast and performances of the film's actors also achieve good marks. This is definitely a notable film in the Wild Dogs filmography considering it features (next to maybe only APOCRYPHA) the only time a female protagonist has headlined one of their features. Vanessa Leigh (who previously had a small role in Fredianelli's MONEY FOR ANGELS) portrays the main character Katie and does a fine job. She portrays a strong woman, but not exploitative so on the level of say, Pam Grier's hard-ass blaxploitation roles. No punches are pulled on portraying how a woman (especially a lower class one in the south) would have likely been treated at that time, but she never turns into Superwoman when she goes to seek revenge on the villains of the picture who try to break her.
The supporting cast in the film is also quite memorable. Jeremy Koerner is given a much meatier role than what he had to work with in I DIE ALONE and does great in a turn as a twisted (almost Spaghetti Western like) gangster villain named Richard Hayden. Then there's James Allen Brewer (giving off a really Richard Crenna like vibe) seems right at home in Depression era crime mode. Gift Harris is memorable as is the ever reliable Ray Medved in some of the few sympathetic roles, while (newcomer?) George S. Gemette is downright frightening as a really unsavory character.
As far as the film goes, it's pretty entertaining and watchable if focusing on some not at all light subject matter. There's some really good set-pieces and some great shots throughout that will definitely stay with the viewer. Plenty of brutal violence is featured, but the final shootout is unfortunately kind of underwhelming on repeated viewings. There's also sadly really apparent lack of practical effects on display with CGI crimson spray used most often instead of squibs. There's also plenty of digitally added muzzle flash, bullet impacts, and a really shoddy looking computer-rendered fire that blazes.
Unfortunately, the film also has it's share of other problems and it proves to be another Wild Dogs film that still isn't quite there yet. I have a hard time pinpointing what it is specifically (though probably related to the scripts or the budgets), but there's just something off about them. A lot of the time, I just feel like Fredianelli's movies ask a lot of the audience when they don't have to. There should be more in the movie that gets shown instead of alluded to and done in a more exciting manner that really engages the audience. Even if this is sort of a vague criticism at best, I know it's there given the SCARLET WORM was one (if not the only) not to suffer from it. It just felt like well-- more of a real movie to me. With all that said, BLACK CAT WHISKEY still comes recommended and is (at least for this viewer) superior to Hollywood's period gangster offerings as of late (PUBLIC ENEMIES, LAWLESS, and of course the stinker that is GANGSTER SQUAD) even if this indie probably cost about as much as it did to feed the cast and crew on those films. Great southern folk music score.
Jesús Franco would be proud!
Except for the absence of female nudity of course.
As a director, Richard Griffin has made a name for himself (primarily working in the horror genre) with 13 feature films to his credit. The majority of these films have been made under his production company Scorpio Film Releasing beginning circa 2004 (yes, before Tarantino & co. seemingly began (or at least popularized) the whole resurgence of modern-day exploitation cinema with movies like GRINDHOUSE, and contributed to the over-saturation of mostly shoddy, amateur, direct-to-video genre films). Over the years, Griffin has amassed a (almost seemingly close-knit family type) pool of talented New England actors and crew and shows no sign of decreasing his immense productivity (I don't think I can even count the number of films that he currently has in development). That said, (having seen most of the director's filmography), it looks as if Griffin has more than graduated from the (likely even cheaper than his current output) shoe-string budgeted (both in production and aesthetics) movies he began his film career with that overall, had more of a home-made feel to them. However, starting with 2011's EXHUMED, Griffin seems to have reached a new level by producing films that transcend their meager budgets and easily stand on their own as quality examples of contemporary genre cinema. With EXHUMED, MURDER UNIVERSITY, and now, DR. FRANKENSTEIN'S WAX MUSEUM OF THE HUNGRY DEAD, Griffin has achieved an early-Walter Hill like streak by making three solid, quality, and highly entertaining films in a row! When it comes to DR. FRANKENSTEIN'S WAX MUSEUM OF THE HUNGRY DEAD, Griffin clearly pays homage to the many vintage B-movie horror and monster films he most definitely loves and grew up with. Now I know what you're thinking, do we really need another Frankenstein movie or a horror flick set in a wax museum (given the three versions of HOUSE OF WAX, among others)? Well to say the least, this movie does not play out in the most typical manner. Heck, the Wax Museum is more of a McGuffin than something as clichéd as a place for the villain to showcase dead victims preserved as statues (though the film does make use of the Scooby-Doo like, character hiding by being mistaken for statue gag). Instead, the wax museum locale (shot on location at Count Orlok's Nightmare Gallery in Salem, MA) just provides for a really interesting and atmospheric location (if this movie doesn't get you to want to visit Count Orlok's, then I don't know what will!) that Dr.Frankenstein (Michael Thurber), can use as a front for his mad scientist, corpse re-animating activities. Sure, the movie is still somewhat formulaic and derivative (intentionally being a certain 'type' of horror flick and sort of a "movie about movies" in general), but the film has more in common with Griffin's previous MURDER UNIVERSITY than it does with say, 30s Universal Monster movies or British Hammer horror flicks.
Like MURDER UNIVERSITY, the movie centers around a group of young people (high-school teenagers this time around) who become caught-up in a labyrinth of murders and mayhem. Unlike MURDER UNIVERSITY, the majority of the protagonists are hugely unlikable (almost the horror equivalent of the spoiled rich kids in WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY) and (with the exception of the sympathetic characters of Jamie Lyn Bagley's nerd-girl character Katherine and her love interest (or heck, even Sean Carufel's character, the snarky talking-head on a petri dish named Fritz)) so (along with the added fact that the movie plays like a dark-comedy anyway), the depraved youngsters (yes, anyone who doesn't care to learn about the history of classic Hammer horror films or hasn't even seen Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO deserves some form of punishment, at least by this film-geek's standards :) ) makes the audience delight in (and anxiously anticipate in) witnessing the main characters inevitable and brutal demises.
On a technical level, the movie has good production values (especially for being micro-budget), is well shot, and features some good over-the-top and comedic performances from pretty much all involved in the cast. Naturally, Michael Thurber (complete with eye-patch, toupee, and over-the-top German accent) stands out in the titular role and provides somewhat of a new and fresh take on the Dr. Frankenstein persona. Hell, to be honest, the guy has so much charisma in all the many different film roles I've seen him play that I wouldn't mind (as seems to be the case anyway) if he appears in every subsequent Richard Griffin film. Furthermore, the film's Timothy Fife/Lang-Grannan music score is pitch-perfect and sets the tone and atmosphere perfectly in all its 1980s, synthy, John Carpenter and Goblin-esque glory (In fact, the opening theme is so memorable that it brings to mind the iconic theme songs from THE EXORCIST and HALLOWEEN, and I don't think that's an overstatement on my part). Moreover (like MURDER UNIVERSITY) the movie has very much a cool retro, 1980s vibe as a whole (and despite the faux back story that played immediately preceding the film at the premiere, the time-frame is much more loose so I won't get all anal-retentive history geek about all the anachronisms) and comes complete with everything from hideous wardrobes to Duran Duran posters and the use of cassette tapes. If I really had to point out flaws in the movie it would be (as a huge fan of practical special effects) the obvious (yet minimal) uses of CGI for some of the blood-splatter. However, given the fact that the film doesn't really take itself seriously (the blood and gore being of course cartoony on purpose), it doesn't really detract from the film or anything. All in all, DR. FRANKENSTEIN'S WAX MUSEUM OF THE HUNGRY DEAD is a fine achievement in low-budget horror film-making and is entertaining on so many levels. Recommended.
I Die Alone (2013)
War on a Budget
Filmed in California (where I assume most 1950s made US Korean War movies were filmed anyway) I DIE ALONE does a convincing enough job of transporting the viewer to the battlefields of 1950s Korea. The set-design and costumes in the film are quite good and (with the possible exception of a debris ridden Korean village (?)) it all looks pretty feasible for the period and convincing for what they're supposed to represent (especially the two war bunkers which were shot at the same location, but redressed for the American and North Korean sides respectively). Props are for the most part period correct as well (the only anachronistic weapon likely being a Colt Python revolver used for a game of Russian Roulette (kind of a nice touch given that I heard the instances of the game in THE DEER HUNTER were actually inspired by the Korean War instead)), but it's a little weird to see most of the North Korean soldiers using American weapons (captured or not). Michael Nosé actually uses an appropriate bolt-action rifle (looking like one of the Russian or Chinese models the North Koreans would more likely be using), but it's really only seen in the opening battle scene for some reason. These implausibilities really don't detract from the film though and the most clearly seen budgetary limitation relates (not surprisingly) to the absence (aside from being heard off screen in what is some pretty good sound design) of vehicles like tanks, Army jeeps, and aircraft (though I hear a real Soviet T-34 tank was going to be used originally but had trouble operating). Needless to say, the battle scenes in the movie are quite intense and well staged with some of the best squib effects in a Wild Dogs Production (there's just as much smoke as there is blood splatter!). Some of the CGI visual effects are pretty easy to spot it seems (though they're actually quite well done save maybe the almost cartoony muzzle flash on the Tommy-Gun Fredianelli uses in an early cameo appearance). It's also a little unconvincing that despite the massive amounts of rounds being discharged throughout, we just about never see a gun being re-loaded or run out of ammo.
I DIE ALONE is a good looking, well shot film and there are plenty of nice touches that actually give it a very 1950s vibe (stock footage, filters, period music, etc.). One flashback sequence with the lead character and his girlfriend looked jarringly modern, but it's such a minor part of the movie it's easy to overlook. The stock music and audio is pretty nicely utilized, though I'm kind of scratching my head and wondering if the North Korean soldiers would really be listening to what sounds like WWII era Japanese music. The original music by Aaron Stielstra is excellent and sets the tone quite perfectly. Stielstra's score in the film has a very nice Jerry Goldsmith/Jerry Fielding sound to it which fits a war movie like this great.
The biggest flaw of I DIE ALONE is in the many weak acting performances that are on display for so much of the film. I don't necessarily think the movie has pacing issues or anything, but a lot of the poorly delivered dialog seems to make a lot of the movie somewhat hard to bare and go by more sluggishly. This is really a shame actually, because the worst performances are by far from the two lead actors. Carl Schreiber as main character Pvt. Finch gives off charisma and performs adequate at times, but so much of his dialog is delivered with either the wrong (or lack of) emotion. Marc Litman who plays the main supporting character (a mailman named Perry) fairs even worse and is almost completely wooden in his performance or is giving off the wrong inflection with his lines. Even if the character is supposed to be not all there mentally, Litman's performance really isn't very believable. Added to that, it's all the more of a shame since some of the minor character roles are performed quite well. Jeremy Koerner is great as the hard-ass and increasingly fed-up Lieutenant Burton (even if he plays up the fact that he's a cold bastard a bit too much). Peter Stylianos turns in a good, convincing performance as Colonel Wiseman, but his screen time isn't much more (if at all) than Koerner's. The North Korean antagonists are all pretty one-dimensional and don't have much to work with, but such a portrayal works thematically as the general mentality conveyed by the American characters is that they're sneaky little "slanty-eyed gook" and should be treated as less than human anyway.
With all that said, the movie does its job well the majority of the time and is pretty watchable. It certainly entertains and affects the viewer even if it doesn't have all that much new to say on the whole. The twist ending was kind of a let-down for me however open-ended it is. Without spoiling too much I'll say it's the kind of twist that can be really un-satisfying (the phrases "Deus ex Machina" and "cop out" come to mind, but are maybe not the most accurate or appropriate to use here).
All in all, I DIE ALONE is a good watch and a great achievement for director Michael Fredianelli in delivering so much scope and ambition. Worth a viewing, but even if I hate to say it again (like I have for seemingly all of Fredianelli's films since), THE SCARLET WORM this movie ain't.
Money for Angels (2012)
Interesting and Supensful Crime Story
The newest Wild Dogs Production is a highly suspenseful crime-drama full of plenty of twists and turns. It details a series of seedy, unlikeable characters and their efforts to obtain a large sum of ransom money. The film is gritty, nihilistic, and given the aforementioned nature of the characters, there really isn't anyone to root for. Despite appearing larger in scale in the trailer, the film has plenty going for it despite its small budget. It's well shot, fairly well acted, and not really predictable in the slightest. That said, the movie seems to suffer a bit in the pacing department at times and doesn't really deliver in memorable or stand-out scenes beyond the first half. Furthermore, some plot details and twists come out a little bit awkward and confusing. Somehow though the whole thing seems to come together by film's end, if leaving a few questions to ponder. All in all, a solid enough effort. Even if it doesn't quite "fire on all cylinders", it really makes you think.
The Type of Horror Film You Just Don't See Anymore
Director Richard Griffin's film EXHUMED is a dark, low-budget horror flick that succeeds on many levels. Shot entirely in RI (or at least entirely in Southern New England for sure), the movie is grim, nihilistic, and full of nice doses of black humor. To describe it best, it's almost like a "haunted house" movie about a dysfunctional family.
However, the film's greatest strength lies in its ability to feel fresh (though it does gain part of this edge simply from being made in a time suffering from a cesspool of banal films and an over-saturated film-market). Oddly enough, the film's freshness seems to come out in a weird (if seemingly contradictory) way by capturing the look and atmosphere of horror films of old. The micro-budget, black and white (often shot on one location), character centered horror films of the 60s. Director Jack Hill's 1968 flick SPIDER BABY comes off as the closest example of the type to EXHUMED and may have even influenced it. Despite being (welcomely) old fashioned, the film is set entirely in the present. EXHUMED is that kind of movie (sort of like say, PULP FICTION) that even though set in the present day for when it was filmed, feels strangely like it belongs in another time frame or even firmly in the film's own uniquely created world.
While Richard Griffin and screenwriter Guy Benoit deserve a lot of credit for crafting this great flick, cinematographer Ken Willinger and his crew deserve a huge shout out for providing some beautiful cinematography. The stark, low-key film-noir look to the film is pitch perfect and creates quite the atmospheric little horror flick.
EXHUMED isn't a perfect film by any means (performances are weak in some spots and the low-budget seems maybe a little more obvious than it could be), but it easily stands as one of the finest films (and possibly best horror flick) of 2011.
Murder University (2012)
80s Slasher Tribute That Doesn't Take Itself Too Seriously
MURDER UNIVERSITY is the rare genre tribute that remains faithful to the regular trappings of said genre while bringing something new to the table. MURDER UNIVERSITY achieves this extremely well and fully avoids any blatant self-indulgent Tarantino-esque homage or pastiche. Even more commendable is the film's ability to laugh at itself and do it successfully. Many modern exploitation throw-back films seem to attempt this, but appear to fail by simply becoming just too silly and end up degenerating into utter farce. While it almost seemed as if MURDER UNIVERSITY had the potential to take such a turn, it didn't. Instead the film manages to achieve a unique balance and become a film with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, yet still maintaining the thrills and chills it promises as a slasher.
The film centers around a series of haunting murders happening at a fictional college in the fictional city of Greensboro, MA. Sure, a slasher set on a college campus is not a new idea (think FINAL EXAM), but MURDER UNIVERSITY somehow still remains very fresh. For instance the fact that instead of just one masked murderer the film centers around a group of murderers who belong to a sort of cult like fraternity of sorts (almost like the infamous Skull and Bones Secret Society and others) was an interesting touch. Furthermore, the killers all wear sinister, red Japanese 'noh' demon masks. This was a neat choice and not since the black-face wearing, banjo playing antagonist in THE MINSTREL KILLER has there been such an inspired slasher villain(s). There's even a possible (if so subtle only history/cultural geeks will get it) reference to the number four being unlucky in Asian culture (for sake of not spoiling too much I won't reveal the significance of this).
Furthermore, the film will likely stand as any fan of 80s horror and exploitation films ultimate wet dream as the film is peppered with brutal atrocities, nudity, and even some steamy sex. When it comes to the technical aspects of the flick, CGI is nearly non-existent and the many gory practical special effects that are utilized shine throughout because of that. In addition, there is little indication that the film was made on such a micro-budget (sure there are little things here and there such as anachronisms and the like, but nothing that detracts from the film or that the average viewer will likely notice).
The film is also commendable for capturing a 1980s look and feel almost spot-on and the film's stellar synth soundtrack helps a lot in this regard. Sean Hartter's track "Escape Into The Night" stands out in particular and is quite catchy.
Director Richard Griffin and his cast (my favorite role being veteran Scorpio Film Releasing actor Michael Thurber's turn as a tough detective) and crew certainly made something special with MURDER UNIVERSITY. It's the rare retro-exploitation throwback that doesn't need the phoney age-effect filters and grain to work or look convincing of the period. It's fun and entertaining and dark too. And God-dammit, it makes you think!
The Dry Blade (2012)
A Japanophile's Review
(AKA Pycal going all Samoan Bob about historical accuracy) For an independent director who works almost entirely on very meager budgets, I admired Fredianelli's decision to tackle a samurai film. While the results aren't perfect, THE DRY BLADE is a decent enough, well shot, and entertaining American samurai flick.
As told by a title card at the beginning, the film takes place in Meiji Era Japan. This was the period from the mid 19th century to the early 20th following the restoration of the Japanese Emperor to power. Such ended the over 200 year period of which Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa Shogunate who achieved peace, but isolated Japan from most of the world (particularly the west). Under the Emperor's leadership during the Meiji Era, Japan began to rapidly modernize and in 1873, the samurai class was essentially abolished by the Meiji Government. The film centers around some of the last remaining samurai, Kido Masahide (Vint Carmona) and Endo Tadaoki (Henry Lee). Tadaoki is a ronin and thief who operates a brothel and leads a band of black-clad masked warriors. Tadaoki plans to help destroy the Meiji Government and when Masahide refuses to join, he and his wife are murdered. Meanwhile, Masahide's son Ken (Michael Nosé) is urged to join Tadaoki. Ken refuses and takes up the sword to avenge the deaths of his parents meanwhile having to cope with a rare illness which makes his skin allergic to water.
While the plot does not offer much new to the genre (with the exception of the water allergy element), the film makes for an entertaining movie despite a clunky and draggy mid-section. Much of the movie also seems to lack character development and plays a little too much like a video game with the main character simply walking around and encountering enemies. Nevertheless, the film stands out for being well shot, boasting mostly skilled choreographed fight scenes, and some excellent practical special effects and make-up.
Shot entirely in California, THE DRY BLADE makes some good use of exterior locations of which include Japanese style landscapes and architecture. The cast proves to be a set of fairly adept actors and actresses and while many of the Japanese characters are portrayed by non-Japanese Asian actors, they fare quite well. Henry Lee as the main villain Endo Tadaoki stands out in particular in his ability to perform a good Japanese accent. Lee also sports the ability to recite authentic lines of Japanese dialog and is the only actor to do so at length.
Nevertheless, THE DRY BLADE does make quite a bit of errors related to historical accuracy (either due to the budget itself, or just pure negligence). While the exteriors shine, many of the interiors come off as rather lackluster and under-representing the more lavish architecture that stands in for their exteriors. For instance a former samurai (played by Larry Kitagawa) may not live in the most opulent of quarters, but they are good enough looking on the outside for the interior to warrant not looking like some tent someone pitched up. Another one of the sets contains a modern hardwood floor which could have easily looked more authentic if simply covered up with tatami mats (much like the floor of the brothel set). Costuming is for the most part quite good. The only noticeable errors include some Western looking pants worn by Kido Masahide and some seemingly modern day footwear worn by a few cast members. It's also of worth noting that one of the female characters (played by Tjoe Rothenfluh) wears her kimono wrong in one instance (with the lapel like flaps facing the direction only worn by dead bodies!). This is kind of a strange mistake given the writer/director likely knew this given a woman is later laid to rest by one of the characters who appears to show the courtesy to alter her kimono flaps. That said, these are mostly nitpicks from an admitted Japanese history, language, and culture geek. However, the error that appears somewhat un-excusable is when one of the Tadaoki's (very caucasian looking ninja-dressed henchmen) brandishes a knife in order to cut a piece of fruit. However the knife is clearly what appears to be a modern US military issue knife. This caused (at least this reviewer) to laugh unintentionally due to the fact that a butcher knife with a wooden handle would likely be a more historically accurate option.
If there's any major problem with the film besides pacing, it's the film's over-reliance on public domain music. While most of it is nicely realized, it gets rather annoying hearing the song "Sakura" repeated for the umpteenth time.
Regardless of its faults, THE DRY BLADE stands as a decent entry in director Michael Fredianelli's fast growing filmography. Much better than the year's earlier effort COIN.