Friday, October 26, 2018

TWO LAYNES TO HELL: REVIEWS - "FETISH FACTORY" / "VALENTINE DAYz" - by CEJ



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VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!



FETISH FACTORY (2018)
GullCottage rating
(***½ on a scale of 1-5)
   
     With less than a week to go before … c’mon, admit it … what's really everyone’s favorite holiday - good ‘ol Halloween - we at the Cottage wanted to toss a couple of streaming possibilities into the ring for this upcoming weekend and that final stretch of days leading up to the 31st. 

     I’ll admit it. I’m pretty damned tired of zombie movies. This year marks the 50th anniversary of George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (still among the best of ‘em all), and in it’s undead wake - especially over the last ten or so of those years - the genre has been soooo played out it’s knees are shot far worse than my own. Sure, there have been a few bright spots like Garland & Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER, Henry Hobson’s genuinely moving MAGGIE (featuring a surprisingly heartrending performance by Arnold Schwarzenegger - yeah, seriously!) and a few others. But I even checked out of THE WALKING DEAD after Frank Darabont got shafted by AMC. As such (and if you couldn’t tell by the way that handful of films above were described) my creative interest and loyalty tends to land more with a filmmaker rather than with the specific genre in which he or she may happen to be plying their cine-artistic trade. That’s why, in spite of my recent garlic to vampire-like aversion to zombie flicks, I actually looked forward to not just one, but count 'em two new such themed films from writer / director / producer Staci Layne Wilson - FETISH FACTORY (aka CABARET OF THE DEAD) and VALENTINE DAYz.  

Staci Layne Wilson at Shriekfest Los Angeles 2017

     If Staci's name sounds familiar it’s no surprise. You may have seen her over the years as an interviewer on SyFy Channel or Dread Central, or Yahoo! Movies or other places. Her short films such as PSYCHO THERAPY and NOT WITH MY DAUGHTER have been hits on the festival circuit. She’s written a shelf-load of books - among them CITY OF DEVILS, the fiendishly clever THE TRAGEDY MAN (which we did a review of a little while back), the non-fiction 50 YEARS OF GHOST MOVIES, and the up-close-and-personal SO L.A.: A HOLLYWOOD MEMOIR. Lots to talk about in that last one as she’s the offspring of rock musician Don Wilson and 60s pinup icon Nancy Bacon. And oh yeah, she’s presently finishing up a documentary-of-the-heart centered around her dad’s legendary band The Ventures. So, yeah, if you do movies or you've got a TV you’ve probably heard the name somewhere around these parts. 

     We interviewed her around this time last year too on THE MOVIE SNEAK PODCAST (anyone wants to cue it up she comes in at the 10:45 mark) where she gave a nifty heads-up on what was then the upcoming ultimate strippers vs. zombies throwdown flick FETISH FACTORY. And with a premise and a title like that, how could one not want to see it? - hell, out of curiosity if nothing else, right? Pleased to say though that FETISH FACTORY is a heckuva lot more than a nifty title or premise in search of a movie. In fact while those are what will probably attract audiences at first, what will keep them entertained, and I believe coming back again and again till this one becomes a bonafied old fashioned cult film, is it’s “vibe”, … it‘s “personality”, … it’s clever, smart (and smart-assed) sense of wit which is an extension of that of its filmmaker. 

The undead legacy of George A. Romero

     Written and directed by Layne the plot of  FETISH FACTORY is bare bones simple, straight-forward and blissfully unpretentious. Run by the tantalizing Miss Irma (Diane Ayala Goldner of Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN II, … and who wonderfully steals every single scene she’s in here!), a “pop up” cabaret catering to clients with code names like “Footman”, “Lipstick” and “Whipping Boy” becomes the devil’s playground version of The Alamo when a phenomenon begins turning men into zombies ... who feed only upon women. SURPRISE, SURPRISE! That's right, subtext! Go figure, huh? Now do that thing like in the cartoons where you shake your head back and forth real fast and blurry to clear it. See, and some of you were thinking “What more brains could a flick with a title like that have other than the ones splattered across the walls?”. 


     But that’s what I mean about a film being an extension of the filmmaker’s personality and world view. While it’s certainly not sermonizing, one can’t watch the mayhem of FETISH FACTORY and not pick up on it’s thinly veiled analogy between the “clients” and their “hostesses” running parallel with that of the flesh eating male zombies and their female prey, especially in light of such high profile news stories of late involving Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and others. 

     Passion is contagious. So is fun. And the cast of FETISH FACTORY all toss themselves headlong with abandon into the cinematic equivalent of not so much a carnival funhouse ride as much as it is the small budget independent horror movie equivalent of a monster truck rally. Layne’s more than game cast includes Carrie Keegan (of BRAVO AFTER HOURS and REEL JUNKIE), Jennifer Blanc-Biehn (whom you may remember from tv’s PARTY OF FIVE and DARK ANGEL), Emma Julia Jacobs (HITCHCOCK, RUBY SPARKS), Chase Williamson (JOHN DIES AT THE END), Tristan Risk (DARK WEB), and Ruben Pla, Jesse Merlin and the late Daniel Quinn (to whom the film is dedicated) as the clients with “those names”.  

(L to R) Carrie Keegan, Jennifer Blanc-Biehn, Staci Layne Wilson, Tristan Risk

     One interesting thing to also take away from FETISH FACTORY - while the film certainly makes no pretense at being P.C., in light of today’s #meToo sensibilities one may wonder before entering it's doors how exploitative (or not) things may get there. After all it’s a movie about exotic dancers and not Sunday School teachers. However, while the old adage (especially with film) is that “sex sells”, that’s really not on the menu here. 


     Sorry guys. Yeah, I’m saying that while the women do look damned good in this one, you don’t see any “t” or “a”, or even any of that (actually laughable) late night Showtime pretend sex. If that’s what you’re after you might wanna keep scrollin’ down that Amazon Prime queue because humor, wit and old fashioned “hair ’em,  scare ’em and make ’em laugh” sensibilities of the old grindhouse sort are the fetishes this one’s got on it’s mind. 

     If there’s one minor caveat (and it’s an entirely subjective one on my part), I wish the film looked a little (for lack of a better term) “grungier”. There’s a part of me used to watching this kind of movie in a gum-sticky floored inner city theater with pot smoke wafting into the air, and with streaks, skips and pops riddling the film stock itself. That kind of "dirty it up and age it" post digital manipulation is expensive however. And Ms. Layne and her cast and crew were functioning with minimal resources. Considering that, the technical dexterity and visual bravado on display here is a wonder to behold with the writer / director accomplishing a helluva lot with very little. And, oh yeah, while I wouldn't call it a "twist ending" there is also a nifty coda which leaves the film with actually more of a TWILIGHT ZONE / OUTER LIMITS feel than a straight-up horror one.

     One can only imagine what Layne will do when she gets her hands on a sizable budget in the near future. And if the sheer joy which tears through FETISH FACTORY is any indication then I’m fairly certain that future's just around the corner. A wise studio exec would be a fool not to toss her the keys to the cinematic Jag.

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VALENTINE DAYz (2018)
GullCottage rating
(**** on a scale of 1-5)

     While triple-threating as writer, producer and director on FETISH FACTORY, Ms. Layne wears the producer’s hat (along with Sarah Craig, Kate Rees Davies and Griffin Gmelich) on VALENTINE DAYz. While written & directed by Mark Allen Michaels, VALENTINE is from the (let’s call ‘em) modern L.A. equivalent of that legendary pool of Texas filmmaker friends and cohorts from back in the day which included the Cohen Bros. and Sam Raimi. Remember how they worked on and pitched in with each other’s early projects, and how they collaborated on 1985’s CRIMEWAVE? Another contemporary equivalent would be the years long personal and artistic brotherhood between Mexican born film makers Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro G. Iñárritu. The same exact thing here as many of FETISH FACTORY’s cast and crew - among them Carrie Keegan, Diane Ayala Goldner, Aaron Kai and more - are all involved with VALENTINE DAYz as well. 

     In fact Mr. Kai (Ms. Layne’s significant other in life) not only appears in both films, he also serves triple duty behind the scenes on both in the art and camera departments. This he also did on director Michaels’ previous feature, the “Sasquatch thriller with a twist” THE FIANCE (2016) - that one of which also starred VALENTINE DAYz’s Carrie Keegan and Dallas Valdez. Whew! See what we’re talking about here - that close knit kind of film making community? Anyway …



      After the rollicking nature of FETISH FACTORY I was stunningly caught off guard by the more subdued dramatic tone of VALENTINE DAYz. Not unlike FETISH it’s plot is bare bones straight-ahead. Or at least it begins that way. And in a sense VALENTINE cleverly does what Stephen King will often do, which is to set a smaller more intimate story tangentially within the same universe as a more sprawling one. In the same way say in which King’s short stories “Jerusalem’s Lot” and “One For The Road” function as a prequel and sequel respectively (but with different characters) to the 1975 novel ’SALEMS LOT, so does writer / director Micheals’ VALENTINE DAYz seem to be a smaller scale, more personal "taking-place-over-in-the-corner-there" story set within the apocalyptic zombie disease infected landscape of Max Brooks’ WORLD WAR Z.  


     In VALENTINE two individuals approaching middle age, Max (Valdez) and Sara (Keegan), finally find true love with one another only to have it shattered as the world goes topsy-turvy apesh*t when it’s smitten with the aforementioned zombie infection. At the beginning it seems as if this will be sort of a non-humorous version of Edgar Wright’s SEAN OF THE DEAD (2004), or a non-nuclear nightmare rendition of Steve De Jarnatt’s MIRACLE MILE (1988) where a man braves an apocalyptic landscape in order to reunite with the woman he loves. But when Max’s criminal past - and certain abilities he possesses because of that past - are revealed, things take a turn into a tonal territory at times reminiscent of 80s era cult fave films such as Luc Besson’s SUBWAY (1985), Richard Stanley’s HARDWARE (1990) and, yeah, even Alex Cox’s REPO MAN (1984). That's a big compliment, by the way!


     VALENTINE DAYz isn’t what I’d call a “narratively complex” film, … or what George Lucas once referred to as a “narrative freight train” - y’know, one of those films where this happens, then this, and then this, and then the plot turns in on itself, etc. But it is best to view it with a clean slate, and to not know ahead of time where the plot is going to take you. As such I’m not going to reveal anything. I will say, however, that, hell, I would’ve been content to just stick with the Max and Sara “love story in a world gone mad” aspect alone. But the other threads which tendril out from that central one are admittedly fascinating roads down which to travel story-wise. And any one of them is worthy of an entire film itself.


     Viewing FETISH FACTORY and VALENTINE DAYz back-to-back very much returned me to the days of Philly’s late great TLA Theater when it was primarily a retro art movie house rather than the concert venue it is today. The TLA (Theater Of The Living Arts) frequently ran double-bills of films which kinda / sorta had a commonality - even if a strained one - between them. So, one week you could catch a double-bill of THE NAME OF THE ROSE playing with THE DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT, then the next week you’d do SUBWAY and DIVA, then the one after that you’d get REPO MAN with THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER, etc. There’s a reason these two films here remind me of that era, but I can’t quite at this time put my finger on the pulse of exactly why. 

     It could be that, while I wouldn’t necessarily call Ms. Layne a “retro” film maker ... . I mean, her thematic and visual sensibilities are every bit as modern (in the best sense of that word) as anyone else's. But, as stated earlier, the projects with which she involves herself aren’t just “a nifty title in search of a plot”. They may seem such to the casual eye briefly skimming over the titles in an Amazon, Netflix or whatever queue. But, as with those old TLA films, Layne's, while very much enjoyable on a pure fun level, sustain and carry themselves by having a few more layers of interest (and yes, a bit of intelligence) below the surface of the genre razzle dazzle. And if more zombie-themed films tended to lean in that direction I don't think I'd be so "been there, done that; no biggie" about so many in general.


     Give a look-see to either FETISH FACTORY or VALENTINE DAYz this Halloween season. Or better yet take both Laynes to their respective cinematic hellscapes. It’s a great ride.


                                                                                                                     CEJ
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More on Staci Layne Wilson @ https://www.stacilaynewilson.com/

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