HELL TOWN and OCCUPYING ED headline NCGLFF this weekend

HELL TOWN and OCCUPYING ED are opening night selections at the North Carolina Gay & Lesbian Film Festival this weekend.  The screening times are as follows.  Actors Owen Lawless and BeckiJo Neill will be there with me to present the film and do a Q&A.

HELL TOWN
AUG 14 @ 11 PM
AUG 15 @ 11:20 PM
AUG 19 @ 9:20 PM

OCCUPYING ED
AUG 14 @ 6:45 PM
AUG 16 @ 10:50 AM
AUG 19 @ 7:10 PM

THE CAROLINA THEATRE OF DURHAM
309 WEST MORGAN ST / DURHAM, NC 27701

FEAST OF FUN podcast interview

I was recently interviewed on the hit podcast FEAST OF FUN (you can subscribe on iTunes).  It was a great visit with Marc and Fausto, and at the time of this writing more than 24,000 people listened to the interview!

We talked about my friend the great actress Karen Black, filming EL GANZO in Mexico, digging up bodies on alleyways, punk rock royalty Pleasant Gehman, and the other current film I have on the festival circuit: HELL TOWN.  They also got me to talk about being betrayed by my ex the sociopath, but unfortunately the last half of our interview (which had to do primarily with commentary from the guys on the Rachel Dolezal crisis, during which I basically said nothing for 10 minutes) was cut when ProTools stopped recording without the guys being notified.

You can listen to the podcast HERE or at this link: http://feastoffun.com/podcast/2015/06/18/fof-2180-hell-yes-to-hell-town/

Enjoy!  I really loved my visit with FEAST OF FUN and am excited to share it with those of you who haven’t heard it yet.

EL GANZO sneak preview Sunday

EL GANZO will have a special screening on Sunday (28 June) at 1pm as part of the Free State Festival in Lawrence, Kansas.  I will be there with Susan Traylor and some of the cast/crew to do a Q&A after the film.

The day prior (Saturday 27 June), at 10:30 AM, I’ll be giving an introduction to my process used in the Maverick Filmmaking Workshop for the festival which is FREE to attend.

Both the EL GANZO screening and the Maverick Filmmaking Workshop will happen at the Lawrence Arts Center.  For directions, visit the FREE STATE FESTIVAL website at that link.

<iframe src=”https://player.vimeo.com/video/119710923″ width=”500″ height=”213″ frameborder=”0″ webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe>

MEDIA DETOUR reviews EL GANZO

El Ganzo Review by Tyler Selig, MEDIA DETOUR

An emotional story of two strangers in Mexico. No, it doesn’t involve crime. Damn it stereotypes, go away.

Lizzy is a woman with an unknown past who makes her way to the Hotel El Ganzo in Mexico. There she meets an artist named Guy who is trying really hard to find the inspiration for his big breakthrough. The newest film by experimental auteur Steve Balderson relies on the relationship that forms between the two main characters; two lost souls/travelers who find each other and form an organic, and spiritual, bond with one another.

We don’t need to know a lot about where they come from, but we learn a little. I won’t spoil any of it, but the heart of the film is in the now — not the past and not the future. It is the kind of film that places the viewer as a fly on the wall, as we watch these strangers awkwardly meet but then grow into much more.

In a movie like this, the actors fueling the action need to be at the top of their game. Luckily, both Susan Traylor and Anslem Richardson dive head first into their roles and truly bring Lizzy and Guy to life. They are an unlikely duo, each with their own anchors preventing them from moving forward, until they find the appropriate reasons to do so. They are both charming and have a tremendous amount of chemistry so watching them perform is a good example of how powerful cinema can be.

It doesn’t even require constant drama in order to be affective. Many movies would have some massive quarrel appear between the two leads in an attempt to cheaply create admiration for both them and the audience. No such attempt exists here, and there’s actually very little hostility on display. Yet the movie doesn’t suffer for it because while Lizzy and Guy are not exciting per se, they are real. And that’s infinitely more important.

I have a very miniscule problem with the way it is edited on occasion as it comes off as a little disjointed and jarring. Moments when the characters are sitting there silently only to be quickly moved in the next frame can be a little disrupting. At the same time, there are periods where the director has chosen to splice dialogue over a scene where the actors are doing something that isn’t necessarily related to what is being said. That is a fascinating approach to advancing the narrative while presenting something a little off-the-cuff.

Balderson has used many different techniques in his movies which is why he’s such an exciting director. Here he brings the area to life with wide, lingering shots, often photographing Mexico in a way we rarely see. Instead of coming off as some seedy escape (as it often does in mainstream movies), it is shown as the beautiful place that it is. I can’t actually recall the last time I saw it showcased so wonderfully.

Layered on top of his imagery is a soundtrack that is minimal but potent. There are only a few different songs throughout the course of the hour and a half, ranging from droning ambient music to moving piano to more traditional Mexican folk music, but it adds a motif to the whole experience and drives the point home.

While this will undoubtedly be mentioned in every review, I feel it is necessary to point out. Everything you see in this movie is now destroyed because Hurricane Odile hit Los Cabos shortly after filming was finished. It’s a true tragedy for obvious reasons but it does paint a different portrait now, with this being one of the last documented accounts of Hotel El Ganzo. It’s hard not to get a little more emotional watching it when one is aware of this fact.

El Ganzo is a great film; slow but never boring, it’s meticulously crafted with gentleness and love. It’s proof that you can tell a simple tale of two people, without forced burdens that they need to overcome, and have it resonate with the audience.

Summary: FOUR STARS
El Ganzo is overflowing with heart and beauty. An unlikely relationship blooms between a slightly odd, yet endearing, woman and a struggling artist… and it is a pleasure to watch.

More on EL GANZO @ DIKENGA.com

MJ SIMPSON reviews EL GANZO

Check out this awesome review by UK Film Critic MJ Simpson, for my next movie EL GANZO:

EL GANZO review
By MJ Simpson

Here is how to make an El Ganzo cocktail. Take one measure of Jodorowsky, one measure of Bunuel. Pour over crushed Balderson. Serve with a slice of Kubrick. And a paper umbrella.

Yes, we’re off down Mexico way for the latest feature from the indefatigable Steve Balderson, the best thing to come out of Kansas since Dorothy’s farmhouse. I actually got sent a screener of this three months ago, and normally I watch Steve’s films the moment they arrive in my in-box, bypassing whatever is in my TBW pile. On this occasion however, Steve sent me two screeners – Hell Town and El Ganzo – with a recommendation that I leave a gap twixt the two, as they are very different films. I followed that wise advice – and then a whole load of other things came along and filled the gap, leaving El Ganzo atypically unwatched.

Well, I’ve watched it now and, just like most of Steve B’s films, I absolutely Larry loved it.

It’s sort of an archetypal Balderson picture, partly in that it’s nothing at all like the previous one. But it also addresses themes which permeate much of Steve’s oeuvre: themes of identity and discovery, a journey undertaken by an individual, couple or group to find out who they are.

In this case we have Lizzy (Susan Traylor, previously in Firecracker, Stuck! and The Casserole Club), who journeys to the El Ganzo hotel, walking the last few miles after the minibus taxi she was in breaks down. At the hotel, she meets travel photographer Guy (Anslem Richardson, who was a cop in The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and the two pal up, not least because they’re the only two Americans around (apart from bellhop Billy, played by Mark Booker who also composed the wonderful score). Guy seems a normal, well-adjusted fellow, He has a boyfriend back home and constant travels have put a strain on the relationship, but on the whole he’s a personable, friendly chap.

Lizzy, on the other hand, is a bit … well, kooky. Not in an attractively eccentric sort of way, but in a distractingly not-quite-with-it sort of way. Why does she keep asking Billy to look for her suitcase when she turned up at the hotel with no luggage? Why does her claim to be a writer for the same travel magazines that guys takes snaps for seem so inauthentic? Something’s not right here

How not right, and in what way not right, is something that you will discover as the movie progresses. I found myself considering all sorts of theories. Was this a Carnival of Souls gig? Was it a Sixth Sense thing – had Guy actually interacted with any other characters? Or was I letting my imagination run away with me? Would the answer be more prosaic?

Well, nothing’s ever prosaic in a Steve Balderson film. I’ll say no more than that.

What matters is not the offbeatness of the story which, like much of Steve’s work, is a quarter-twist from ‘reality’ – no, it’s the characters. El Ganzo is a two-hander and it’s no exaggeration to say that both actors are absolutely superb, completely inhabiting their characters. Without any crass infodumps, but also without being gratuitously enigmatic, Steve B and his cast present us with two very, very real people that we feel we know (as much as they know each other) but about whom we will discover much more.

Watching Traylor and Richardson is a master class in screen acting. Look, I do the odd bit of acting but in all honesty it’s not much more than larking about in front of a camera for mates. I won’t be winning a BAFTA any time soon. Watching this film really hammered home to me how much skill is involved in acting: skill that is often in short supply in the sort of films I watch, or is present but overshadowed by more exploitable elements like blood, boobs and explosions. Real acting has a subtlety to it that can’t be put into words.

There’s one particular scene in El Ganzo which has stuck in my head. Lizzy is sitting in an empty church. Guy comes in and sits in the pew in front of her. Anslem Richardson delivers a monologue, Guy addressing Lizzy without turning round. While he speaks, Susan Traylor silently trails her finger back and forth along his arm, resting on the back of the pew, that one tiny movement telling us reams about how Lizzy is feeling, about herself and about Guy. And, it just occurred to me, Richardson’s non-acknowledgement of her touch, which Guy can surely feel – he doesn’t flinch, he doesn’t glance back – tells us reams about Guy and his thoughts towards Lizzy. In its own small, subtle way, this is a magical scene, a microcosm of the film overall.

Steve, Susan and Anselm are jointly credited with the script, indicating a considerable amount of improvisation, or at least workshopping. Steve’s direction of the film is immaculate, assisted not only by magnificent performances but also the terrific cinematography of Daniel G Stephens (The Far Flung Star, Occupying Ed, Hell Town).  Of particular note is the use of the hotel itself; it’s simple, geometric architecture adroitly used to frame many of the shots. The local environs are also photographed to impressive effect: little shops and cafes; a sculpture garden of giant abstract heads; beautiful, deserted, sandy beaches.

When Steve moves away from the setting to concentrate on scenes which, in lesser hands, would be static and talky, he breaks up the sequence of events with fineky judged editing, so that sometimes we see one part of a conversation while hearing a different bit. This only adds to the otherworldliness of the film. Wrapping up all the visuals is Mark Booker’s music, much of which has a sparse minimalism that put me in mind of The Blue Nile, but which also occasionally breaks into festively abrasive Mexican trumpets. It complements the imagery and the story and perfectly.

Don’t imagine for one moment, however, that El Ganzo is style over substance. Not a bit of it. This is style supporting substance. It’s just a difficult substance to sumarise and describe. This isn’t a simple boy-meets-girl story, it’s not even really a romance, it’s just a beautiful, wistful, warm, sincere tale of two people who, in finding out about each other, discover a little about themselves.

Wistful: that’s the adjective that keeps coming back to me, that I knew I would need to use in this review somewhere. This is a wistful film. It’s absolutely full of wist, Bags and bags of the stuff.

In other words, it’s about what has been, what could have been and what might be, as well as what is. And really, aren’t all our lives a bit like that? But it takes an artist of Steve Balderson’s calibre to make us think wistfully about our own lives like this, and for each of us to find out that bit more about who we are.

One final note, and then I’ll let you get on. The Hotel El Ganzo is a real place. It’s a fabulous hotel by the look of it, with a strong artistic feel running throughout both the building and the experience of staying there. I can quite see why it would appeal to young Mr Balderson. But, just a few weeks after this film was shot, a hurricane ripped through the place. The hotel is currently closed for repairs, and much of the surrounding area has been ripped up, knocked down or otherwise changed. Steve’s film captures the location as it was and preserves it, a level of wistfulness that no-one could ever have expected.

My rating of his film is almost superfluous, but once again I hold off from an A+ only because I don’t want to believe that Steve Balderson’s career has peaked.

MJS rating: A

* * *

More on EL GANZO @ DIKENGA.com

MEDIA DETOUR reviews HELL TOWN

HELL TOWN review by MEDIA DETOUR

High school can be a difficult time. Hell Town tackles the issues that present themselves when the teenagers aren’t studying, doing work or playing sports; it is about the drama that occurs outside of the classroom, when they are left to their own devices. It is about the relationships that form, both sexual and romantic, and the way that they interact with one another as friends. They deal with the problems that arise when there is a girl who seemingly sleeps with everybody in school, or how it would be for a homosexual jock who is wrestling with the fact he is gay. A goth kid is misunderstood and ignored by mostly everybody while another girl tries to make ends meet by working a minimum wage job.

There is also a killer, nicknamed by the media as the “Letter Jacket Killer”, running amok.

Hell Town is an exercise in genre mashing that luckily doesn’t lose sight of its goal. We witness three episodes of the titular fictional melodramatic soap opera, only the twist is that the film makers inform us that seasons 1 and 3 have been lost in a fire and these episodes are remastered versions. We get dropped into what is most likely the middle of a season, and we get the typical prelude which tells us what happened previously. We essentially have a movie where the actors are playing actors who are playing characters on a television show.

Which means that what unfolds on screen is hammy. Incredibly and intentionally so. The actors are given cheesy lines that they deliver with true conviction because they are in a soap opera. Anybody who has ever watched one knows that they have a deliberate pulpy charm but are rarely known for any form of excellence. Some of the worst lines ever committed to film are said here, and watching Owen Lawless, as Jesse Manly, excellently declare “I don’t want to be gay” is a sight to be seen. It’s funny and that’s what counts. None of the actors are giving award-winning performances but to expect that from this movie is missing the point.

Sometimes I struggle with reviewing films that are purposely bad, just like I don’t know what to score a movie like The Room which is unintentionally terrible. Any schmuck can make a bad movie but not crossing the line between good parody and excessive, unoriginal crap can be a challenge. Soap operas are ripe for the picking so this could have been well have been just another bland mockery of something that is easy to make fun of, but it’s so much more than that.

In an attempt to switch things up, directors Steve Balderson and Elizabeth Spear have also embraced another genre with conventions so silly that it would take a brain dead idiot not to notice them: the slasher flick. Interestingly enough, the slasher has gotten a little bit of recognition — at least in my eyes — over the past two years, because of the fantastic film The Guest. The concept remains the same but like the soap opera aspect of the film, it is self-aware. There is blood and guts, but it’s not over-indulgent.

Incorporating this brand of horror into the movie only heightens the experience and adds more substance. It makes Hell Town more original than it would have been had they merely stuck to the soaps. While it is very easy to enjoy the absurdity of the characters on that level alone, there is also the mystery of who is going around terrorizing them.

It’s over-the-top and the people are vulgar. Since it is a low-budget, independent feature, it has to work within certain constraints that bigger pictures don’t have to. While it strives to be nothing more than an entertaining time, the nature of it hides talented film making. While it may get lost among the main talking point (how silly it is), the cinematography here is excellent. The angles, the lighting; all of it brilliantly mimics soap opera conventions.

In that same sense, I also got a Lynchian vibe from the whole ordeal. It lacks the surrealism of Twin Peaks, but there’s a menacing cloud hanging over the town at all times, where even someone running track seems more sinister than it should. While it is filmed differently than Blue Velvet, there’s still a similar tone; the town is more evil underneath its plastic and normal exterior than an outsider may perceive.

When it ended by telling me what is going to happen next time on Hell Town, I came to my own realization: I wanted this show to exist. I’d watch the shit out of it.

Get HELL TOWN @ DIKENGA.com

FANBOYTV reviews HELL TOWN

HELL TOWN review by FANBOYTV

You never know what you’re in for when you sit down to watch a movie made with a smaller budget, with no famous actors, and that is self-distributed. Sometimes you can have a good result from somebody who knows what they’re doing, and knows how take what they have at their disposal, and make it work. Sometimes you have an unfortunate result, where it seems like the idea of “let’s make a movie” was the whole pitch and “knowing how to make a movie” was of secondary concern. HELL TOWN was, pleasantly, an example of the former. HELL TOWN knows exactly what it is, what it’s doing, and how to communicate that to the viewer.

HELL TOWN presents itself as a television show, pulled out of some long forgotten studio vault. We are told right away that we are watching episodes 7, 8, and 9 from season two of HELL TOWN the series, and also informs us that seasons 1 and 3 have been lost in a fire. While there is no actual HELL TOWN the series, the movie invites the audience to be a passive participant in its own nested mythos.

We’re introduced, quickly, to our cast of characters. The hunky shirtless jock, the Marsha Brady on the outside/Betty Page on the inside teen princess, the jealous and barely-holding it together sister, the scheming nurse, the aging millionaire father, the acerbic friend, the ostracized gay brother, the middle class adoptee with a chip on her shoulder. In any other film, this use of tired archetype characters going through the motions on stories that have long ago been beaten to death, because HELL TOWN is a play on these types, they work very well. What’s more is that HELL TOWN toes the line of parody without becoming overly referential and dipping into Jason Freidberg and Aaron Seltzer “bad parody” territory.

Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our character’s lives. Trish wants to sleep with Blaze. Blaze is sleeping with Trish’s best friend. Butch lusts after Trish. Laura lusts after Butch. Jesse lusts after Bobby, and Bobby is totally into it, but Jesse is struggling with admitting his homosexuality. B.J. is waiting around every corner to watch everything fall apart and Chanel is coping with her comatose adopted mother, and the fact that her sworn enemy is trying to sleep with Blaze. Most of this wild setup unfolds in the first ten minutes of the film. All of it would be very effective satire of the soap opera genre, but to keep things fresh, bloody, and interesting; one of these characters is picking the others off one-by-one, under the moniker “The Letter Jacket Killer.” This shadowy serial murderer seems to have an agenda, and collects the varsity letters from the blood soaked coats of the victims.

Both genres that are on the chopping block in this movie, over-the-top melodrama and over-the-top slasher horror, lend themselves well to parody, and HELL TOWN finds a nice comfortable nest to hunker down in. Here, it can deftly straddle a line between the two, and still keep things fresh and funny. Between bloody castration and violently deadly fellatio, we also have a soap-opera mid-season replacement of an actress. The part of Laura Gable is played by two separate actresses, with little explanation given and, if one is a practitioner of soap operas, there’s probably no explanation needed.

With that we have the cornerstone of what sets HELL TOWN apart from most other parodies: the idea that in setting up this nested mythos, we have the actors playing their parts on two different levels. On one level we have the characters as presented in the narrative. On another level we have actors playing actors playing the characters as presented in the narrative. So one actually finds that while the characters on the narrative level aren’t giving a natural-feeling performance, they aren’t meant to. They’re actually playing actors, giving very boisterous and over the top performances in a ridiculous story, and those performances serve the over-all film very well. Butch may have a few ham-fisted lines, but Ben Windholz is giving a very sincere performance, of an actor playing a character who’s had ham-fisted lines written for him.

Taken separately, I think the idea of yet another horror parody or another soap opera parody might have worn thin. However, HELL TOWN manages to blend the two very nicely. It’s a creamy mixture of the ridiculously melodramatic with the violently macabre.

GET HELL TOWN @ DIKENGA.com

ZombieLife talks to HELL TOWN cast/crew

This radio interview with Eddie Rotten and ZombieLife Podcast was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had.  I was joined on the night of the HELL TOWN premiere (presented by the Austin Horror Society at the Alamo Drafthouse) with Elizabeth Spear, Owen Lawless, BeckiJo Neill, Kyle Eno and Sarah Napier.  Listen to our interview HERE or by clicking the logo below.

ZombieLife logo 2

Next HELL TOWN screening is in Charleston, SC at Crimson Screen Horror Film Fest on May 16.  Details at www.DIKENGA.com

 

HELL TOWN: Review by Andrew Shearer for VOLUME ATHENS

HELL TOWN
Review by Andrew Shearer for VOLUME ATHENS

You can’t just run around making comedies about high school murder and mayhem anymore. It’s far too serious a subject, and even now, revisiting a classic like “Heathers” (1988) feels a little wrong. There’s a reason why Hollywood opted for adapting “The Hunger Games” rather than doing an English-language remake of “Battle Royale.” If you’re going to make a movie where kids are killing one another in the hallways, you’d better be doing so with a straight face.

Unless you’re Steve Balderson.

When I saw his first film, “Pep Squad”, (2000) I couldn’t believe anyone would have the audacity to release such a film (it was actually made in 1998). Centered around a girl named Cherry who goes on a violent rampage after not being nominated for homecoming queen, Balderson’s world was about as far from reality as you could get. To call it irresponsible film making would be a compliment, as there was no attempt made at holding up a mirror to the potentially disastrous consequences of teenage angst in American society. It was gross, it was hilarious, and it was necessary.

Cut to over a decade and thirteen features later, Balderson makes a return of sorts to his roots with “Hell Town”, a wildly original exercise in what John Waters once called “the theatre of the ridiculous”. Presented as three episodes of a non-existent television series, Balderson and co-director Elizabeth Spear (“Roundball”) throw out traditional story structure by placing the viewer in the middle of an already established set of characters up to their eyeballs in high drama. Trish (Krysten Day) is a Marsha Brady clone making a list of potential prom dates, Bobby (Blake Cordell) is secretly in love with track star Jesse (Owen Lawless), Mother Manly (Pleasant Gehman) is in a coma, and that’s just a small piece of it.

Also, there’s a serial killer that’s bumping everyone off, one by one. Fans of “Friday The 13th” will enjoy the creative spin on the famous arrow kill and will delight in the unbelievable “death by donuts” scene, but there’s something for the “Twin Peaks” crowd as well: Gehman also plays a dual role as the attending nurse (sharing nearly ever scene with a comatose version of herself) and one character is replaced with another actor between episodes. It’s surreal, it’s disgusting, it’s high camp, and yet there are still moments of quiet, understated artistry that speak of film makers with more on their minds than just spilling blood and making jokes.

Despite its blatant disregard for anything resembling political correctness, there is more going on with “Hell Town” than your typical indie shocker. Balderson and Spear never go for the cheap laugh, the obvious gag or the tried-and-true high school genre stereotype. Nothing happens the way you expect it to, no one behaves quite the way their appearance would suggest, and the silliness has a razor sharp edge that pokes you any time you’ve started to get too comfortable. Best of all, “Hell Town” exposes most television series for what they are: a glorified soap opera hidden under a higher concept, making you wait far too long to see anything happen.

# # #

Next week April 23, 2015, the Austin Horror Society presents the world premiere of HELL TOWN in Austin, TX at the Alamo Drafthouse.  Open to the public.  Cast & crew in attendance.
Tickets and details: www.DIKENGA.com

HELL TOWN: Review by UK film critic MJ Simpson

HELL TOWN
Review by UK film critic MJ SImpson

For those of us who have been following Steve Balderson’s career, Hell Town is exactly what we have come to expect, in that it is completely unexpected. For starters, it’s a horror film. A black comedy, certainly, but revolving around a serial killer, and some of the deaths are quite unpleasant and gruesome (in a blackly comic sort of way).

Steve’s work has bordered on horror before: Pep Squad was a tale of high school psychopathic murder dark enough to play at genre festivals like Fantasporto (where I saw it, and first met Steve’s producer father Clark). His sophomore work (and magnum opus), the stunning Firecracker certainly contained some disturbingly horrific elements, not least its Browning-ian use of real sideshow freaks. And before Pep Squad Steve even made an amateur, feature-length vampire film. But this is his first full-bodied horror flick.

It’s also a soap opera. Not figuratively or metaphorically but literally. Taking the concept of the three-act structure to its logical conclusion, Steve and co-director Elizabeth Spear have fashioned the story as three consecutive mid-season episodes of a fictitious TV serial, including opening and closing credits (inspired partly by the modern habit of watching TV episodes back to back in a ‘box set’). The acting is deliberately mannered (as is the direction) but not over-the-top or played for laughs. We’re not watching Acorn Antiques here.

The story concerns two families: the Manlys and the Gables. Trish Gable (Krysten Day, a regular at Wamego’s Columbian Theatre) is the perky, peppy blonde prom queen looking to give away her “other virginity” to the right guy. Her bitter, jealous sister Laura is played by BeckiJo Neill in ‘episode 7’ and then recast without explanation from ‘episode 8’ onwards in the person of Jennifer Grace (Marybelle in The Casserole Club), who looks almost nothing at all like her predecessor. Bobby (Blake Cordell) is their slender, effete brother who is not entirely out. Moody emo BJ (Sarah Napier) and their father (Jeff Montague) complete the family. (Montague is missing from the IMDB cast list, possibly because of… well, you can google the guy.)

The Manly boys do their best to live up to their name by wandering around shirtless for much of the film. There’s Blaze Manly (Matt Weight, also co-producer: Ian in Occupying Ed), his brothers Butch (Ben Windholz) and Jesse (Owen Lawless) plus sister Chanel (Amanda Deibert, standing out among a strong cast). Deibert was Tiffany in The Far Flung Star and Lucy in Occupying Ed; she has horror previous including Andrew Muto’s Blood Runs Black and was even in a Creep Creepersin movie! Chanel is Trish Gable’s nemesis and, in a running gag, works in every dining/retail establishment in town. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Steve Balderson joint without a role for Pleasant Gehman and here you get two Plezes for the price of one. She is ‘Mother Manly’, lying comatose on a bed throughout, and also the scheming nurse who cares for her.

Among all the unrequited crushes, backstabbing bitchiness, repressed sexuality, sibling rivalry and general small-town angst, there is the little matter of the ‘Letter Jacket Killer’ who is offing local youngsters in a variety of sadistic ways. Well, I say ‘youngsters’ but in the grand tradition of American movies, all these ‘high school students’ are clearly in their mid-twenties. And within the artificiality of the soap opera conceit, that is exactly as it should be.

The two-headed directorial beast that is Steve and Liz manages proceedings with an acute awareness of both soaps and slashers, never missing a trick for a camera cliché, a hackneyed line of dialogue or an overwrought bit of plotting. It’s a truism that you have to be very good at something in order to effectively lampoon a bad version of that thing without yourself appearing bad, and that’s certainly the case here (the sine qua non of this principle is, in my humble opinion, the Bonzos track ‘Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold’ – what do you mean, you’ve never heard it?). Anyway, Steve is of course a hugely talented and experienced film-maker whose career I have been following for the best part of two decades. Elizabeth Spear is a new name to me.

According to the IMDB (and with all the caveats such a phrase implies) she has made seven previous features since 2003, including dramas, comedies, a documentary, a war film; some of them co-directed with other people. It would seem from Hell Town that she meshes well with Steve B. But then a real TV soap would have different directors for different episodes anyway.

I’m no soap-watcher but I do like a nice slice of horror and Hell Town works admirably as a pastiche of the slasher genre, benefitting (I believe) from having been made by somebody who normally works well outside said genre. Far too many ‘slasher comedies’ are lamentably unfunny and self-indulgent: of interest only to obsessive slasher fans, the sort who don’t care about character, only about deaths. By presenting the tale of the Letter Jacket Killer as a slice of soap opera, Steve and Liz foreground the characters. And although some of the minor ones outside of the two main families have little time to register before becoming bloody corpses, we can infer that we would have known them a whole lot better if we had seen Season One and the preceding six episodes of Season Two. (There is an opening caption explaining that the entire first and third seasons on Hell Town have been lost, and I really hope that Steve makes a lot more of this fictitious ‘real story’ behind the series when he starts publicising Hell Town, mainly because there’s so much fun to be had there.)

Jake Jackson supplied the excellent special effects make-up for the various kills. This is his second film gig following a thriller called Erasure; he has also worked on stage productions of Shrek, Young Frankenstein and The Tempest. Nancy Cox provided the regular hair and make-up.

Several of the supporting cast were also in Occupying Ed and The Far Flung Star. Michael Page, Connor Lloyd Crews and Chris Pudlo all receive ‘additional writing’ credits. Cinematographer Daniel G Stephens, who has previously worked with both directors, credited here with ‘special photographic effects’, lights every scene with a TV sensibility that doesn’t detract from the movie experience. And an extra special treat for long-time Balderfans is the return to the fold of the legend that is Betty O, for the first time since Stuck!, here appearing as a TV news reporter.

Hell Town is a hoot to watch and gives every impression of having been a hoot to make, which I think is characteristic of Steve’s films in this  part of his career. It’s not quite up there with the wonderful Occupying Ed, partly because the soap opera conceit necessarily robs the film of a layer of sincerity. On the other hand, I much preferred it to Steve’s two lightweight international capers The Far Flung Star and Culture Shock. It’s a real treat to see Steve working within the horror genre and bringing that unique Wamego touch to the tired tropes and corny clichés that we all know and love.

MJS rating: A-

# # #

On April 23, 2015, The Austin Horror Society will present the world premiere of HELL TOWN in Austin Texas at the Alamo Drafthouse.  For details visit the website: www.DIKENGA.com