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.

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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

YOU CAN’T PLEASE EVERYONE

No matter what you do, it is impossible to please everybody.  There will always be a percentage of people who hate what you create, no matter what it is.  There’s nothing you can do about it.  However, once you realize this is a true statement, you can best position your work to exist in an environment where the majority of the people will like it.

My first film PEP SQUAD is a satirical comedy about school violence.  It’s in the same vein as John Waters’ SERIAL MOM or that movie HEATHERS from the 80s.  When Hollywood Video wanted to release the movie, they decided to market it as a horror film.  I thought this was a terrible idea, because there’s nothing about the movie that remotely resembles a horror film.  And, I knew that if an unsuspecting viewer, who was out to find a horror film, rented or purchased PEP SQUAD, he or she would be totally disappointed because it didn’t meet their expectations.  That kind of marketing is the most stupid because, I would think, the whole point is to make as much money as possible from the release of a movie.  Instead, by marketing it to the wrong audience, they shot themselves in the foot.

Same thing happened with my film FIRECRACKER.  The distributors wanted to put artwork on the cover featuring a Ferris Wheel and carnival with blood dripping off the letters.  I was like, “Really?! Are you serious?”  After a lengthy email educating the distributors about good design and bad design, they agreed to use the artwork I’d originally created for the film.  There were elements in FIRECRACKER that were horrific, but it was a sort of Gothic Horror, or a classic Shakespearean Tragedy.  Again, it wasn’t a horror film.  I wondered what the obsession is with every distribution company trying to market their movies as horror films.  Yes, horror films sell really well.  So buy a horror film.  Don’t try to pretend the film is horror even if it isn’t.

A similar thing nearly happened to my film CASSEROLE CLUB.  It’s a film about the disintegration of married life.  Although there are sex scenes, and situations, there is nothing “sexy” about it.  Yet the distributors wanted to change the title to SWING PARTY ’69 because they were certain it would show up sooner on the Video On Demand channels.  I put my foot down, as did some of the actors in the film, and just wouldn’t let them change the title.  Any viewer expecting a sexy romp wouldn’t like it a bit once it turned serious and emotionally heavy.  The only people who dislike that film are precisely the ones who put it on thinking they’re about to watch some kind of soft-core porn.  Like the distributors obsessed with marketing every movie as a horror film, if you market every movie as a sexy soft-core number, you’ll alienate people and you won’t live up to meeting the expectations of your viewers.

This article isn’t intended to be about marketing, but I illustrate those two examples as a means to explain the following.  Your project—whatever it may be—is what it is.  No matter what you do, 75% of the people will like it, and 25% won’t.  If you try and disguise the project to please everyone, and gain the respect of the people who don’t like it, you will alienate some of the people who would’ve liked it.  Always leaving you with a percentage of people who hate what you’re doing.

Instead of paying any attention to the people who dislike what you’re doing, my advice is to focus on the 75% who do.  Market to that group and embrace those people.  Ignore the rest.  There will always be a negative review, a group of people who hate it.  There’s nothing you can do about them.  They’re stuck that way forever.  Instead, focus your attention on meeting the expectations of the people who do like what you’re doing.  If your latest movie is loved by kids 14-19 year olds, who cares what the 35 year old thinks.  Market the movie to kids!  That is one of the recipes for success.