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

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