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

WHEN CAN WE SEE IT

The production of a motion picture is complex. The release of a motion picture may be even moreso! We’ve received numerous emails asking questions like: “Will the movie be in theatres?” “When can we buy the DVD?” “Will it show in my town (or country)?” and the most often-asked, “When will it be on Netflix?” And these emails have come from Europe, Australia, Africa, South America, North America, Asia. Everywhere!

The motion picture industry has as many layers and middle men as any other. Perhaps more. Regardless, these people and organizations are a part of the distribution of a film. Each of them represents a tiny segment of the distribution of a film. So unless a film is allied with one of the really large distributors (and we know who they are!) there are a great many hoops to jump through, and people to work with, to begin the process of getting a film on the big screen, iTunes, Amazon, Hulu or Netflix.

Most of us are familiar with the blockbusters that open on 3,000+ screens on the same weekend. By the end of several months, the films have shown in every country of the world and the Netflix debut is eagerly awaited. In between those two platforms the films appear on airplanes, make a buck on an archaic DVD release, then cable channels and satellite feeds. These are all unique channels of distribution. Unfortunately, the world of independent cinema doesn’t follow such an all-encompassing path, unless, of course, you are Angelina Jolie with your directorial debut.

In traditional (read: archaic) sequential order, the distribution of a film might follow these steps: 1) theatrical release, 2) pay-TV release, i.e. cable and satellite, 2) travel networks such as airplanes and cruise ships, 3) commercial television, 4) DVD, then 5) Online streaming such as Netflix or Hulu. This can happen in each and every country in the world, either simultaneously (like that seen by the blockbusters) or one at a time over the course of a number of years. Naturally, the commercial goals of any filmmaker might likely include widespread release.

In addition to being a great art form, filmmaking is also a business. Most of us have never stopped to consider exactly how a movie is released and all the possible ways that it can happen. I know I didn’t. Furthermore, I never stopped to think about how it might not even be the same exact film in each different country. Oh, it will be mostly the same, but poster art changes, sometimes the title of the film is changed and there may well be editing within the film, depending upon customs and standards in a given country.

My first film, PEP SQUAD, was a satire on American school violence. The script was written in 1995 – long before any of the school violence had occurred – and actually predicted what was to come. We were in negotiations with a major distributor to release the film the very day that Columbine erupted onto the nation’s conscious. The company called us immediately and said, “Sorry, we can’t touch this now with a ten-foot pole.” All of a sudden, poking fun at the American culture and confronting the causes of school violence – the causes that no one wants to talk about such as parents, bullies, and the society at large – wasn’t commercially viable, especially in a comedy! PEP SQUAD had a message that the “society at large” didn’t want to hear.

What followed was interesting. All of the domestic distributors were afraid to put PEP SQUAD out there. Some made their own watered-down versions. But the international marketplace was hungry for the film, especially one that detailed and gave insight to what was happening in the US. PEP SQUAD was released theatrically in a number of countries and still continues to show in places such as France and Germany. It has appeared twice on French satellite television, and 7 years after its production in 1997 it was released in Germany.  In 2011 when the rights came back to me, I gifted them to Lloyd Kaufman (Troma) as a Christmas gift.  And today, 18 years after it’s initial debut, PEP SQUAD is still being released globally.

But in North America it sat on the shelf. Finally, when enough time seemed to have lapsed after Columbine, PEP SQUAD was released direct to video after several small theatrical engagements in Los Angeles and other cities. Alas, it was marketed as a horror film, even though it was obviously a comedy. Why? Because the distributor believed that its commercial viability was still threatened if taken as comedic commentary on the social problem of school violence. While I disagree with this approach, I do understand how they came to that conclusion. As we all know, art is often defined and categorized because of the culture that surrounds it. In society after society around the world, PEP SQUAD is seen as a hilarious commentary on the absurdity of America, but in America it can only be tolerated if it is an otherworldly horror film.

Explaining the business of distribution is complicated and difficult. To summarize, a film can be released theatrically in New York, but not Los Angeles; in Ohio but not Florida. Films can be seen on airplanes; on cable; on Netflx; on DVD; in classrooms; at colleges; in small fine arts theatres; on the internet; throughout many continents – but not necessarily every country; and even if seen in every way possible, films may not be shown in all of those venues all at once. The average lifespan of a film is around ten years, but just turn on the television and films from 20 and 30 years ago are routinely showing. Even though you’ve seen a film in the theatre, or watched it on DVD, it might be many years before it’s available on Netflix. Just recently TWIN PEAKS hit Netflix, 20 years after it first aired.

Distribution is probably the single most misunderstood aspect of the movie business. HELL TOWN will be unveiled soon.  The Austin Horror Society is presenting the world premiere in Austin, Texas on April 23 (at the Alamo Lakeline).  Then, in May it screens at a film festival in Charleston, SC.  Currently being scheduled are screenings in Chicago and other places.  We have all the information available on www.DIKENGA.com so check the website for updates. Remember, even after HELL TOWN is released in theatres and at film festivals, there will still be dozens of opportunities for you to see it. Anyplace. In any form.