Color, 2004, 70m. Color, 1999, 95m.
Directed by Eric Stanze & Robin Garrels
Starring DJ Vivona, Eli DeGeer, Amanda Booth
Sub Rosa/Wicked Pixel (US R1 NTSC) / DD2.0
While many indie horror filmmakers are content to constantly tread the same territory over and over again, that charge certainly can't be leveled at Eric Stanze (Scrapbook) and Robin Garrels (Insaniac). From its peculiar but evocative title to its whiplash editing style, China White Serpentine is only a horror effort by virtue of the fact that it doesn't really fall under any category at all and winds up with a macabre third act. More indebted to the likes of Donald Cammell and Kenneth Anger than the usual suspects, this is head-spinning, experimental filmmaking with a nasty, explicit edge.
The film's nominal identification figure is Dave (Wicked Pixel staple DJ Vivona), who's spiralling into depression after the demise of his drug-addicted brother, Trent (talented newcomer Jason Allen Wolfe). Trying to scrape his life together, Dave is thrown for a loop when the deceased Trent inexplicably turns up on his doorstep with a mysterious DVD that might explain his grisly fate. Then the story proper (prefigured by the orgiastic sex-and-drugs opening credits) begins within the DVD footage as his weeping girlfriend Beth (Eli DeGeer) narrates and flashbacks illustrate her stormy relationship with Trent, which involved massive drug dealing and consumption, graphic sex sessions for Internet broadcast.
With its non-linear plotting and deliberately disorienting visual style, China White Serpentine is definitely not the first Wicked Pixel title to pick up but offers rewards for more seasoned, adventurous viewers. The heavy doses of sex are handled well and relevant to the plot, with the actors fearlessly going places most others would probably rather avoid. DeGeer and Wolfe actually make for an interesting doomed couple for whom the simple act of lighting cigarettes together carries symbolic portent. The last act detour into full-blown horror wraps things up on a nihilistic note but suffers a bit since it doesn't involve the two most interesting people in the movie; the middle third is by far the strongest as the emotional and physical aspects of the film fuse together quite nicely.
Skillfully shot on video, this lives up to Wicked Pixel's previous achievements. Image quality looks sharp and colors are well-rendered, at least when they're not intentionally manipulated or desaturated. The stereo mix offers a trippy soundscape complete with a nice, atmospheric music score (also isolated on a separate track). Also up to their standards are the special features, including two audio commentaries. The first features both directors (who explain how they wound up collaborating rather than going about their own solo projects) along with videographer Jason Christ, while DeGeer and actress Amanda Booth take the helm for the second track to offer their own perspective on their revealing roles (in every sense of the term).
Two lengthy featurettes, "Shooting Up" and "coming Down," feature interviews with all the principals and are professionally staged and shot. Most interesting is Wolfe who explains his own approach to the character and the very delicate nature of shooting some of the film's more extreme scenes. Also included are a trailer and promos for other Sub Rosa titles including the ubiquitous Scrapbook.
Directed by Eric Stanze
Starring Emily Haack, Tommy Biondo
Sub Rosa/Wicked Pixel (US R1 NTSC) / DD2.0
In the increasingly crowded world of shot-on-video horror, it's difficult for many projects to even see the light of day, much less garner any attention. However, that proved to be no obstacle for the ferocious and highly accomplished Scrapbook, which has already earned its share of both critical accolades and censorship hassles. The cover warns that it "contains extremely disturbing material," which in this case turns out to be understatement instead of hype.
The film plunges immediately into the environment of a seriously unhinged man named Leonard (played by the film's writer and production designer, Tommy Biondo, who died due to a filming accident on another shoot before he could see the finished product). After a puzzling and effective prologue in which he's taunted by his naked sister and subjected to vicious abuse, we meet his latest captive, Clara (Emily Haack), who's bound to a chair in his kitchen papered with Polaroid snapshots. After brutally raping her, Leonard explains that he maintains a scrapbook filled with the thoughts, scribblings, and cries for help from his victims, and since the book is almost full after twelve years, Clara may be the last one necessary to complete the masterpiece that will make him a media star. Clara's written response doesn't please him, to put it mildly, and punishment is swift. Living in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, Leonard has the perfect set up to dispose of his victims in the nearby barn. However, Clara begins to closely analyze the scrapbook, devising a way to prolong her life, explore the mind of her captor, and perhaps even escape.
While many viewers may be tempted to flee in shock from the sucker punches delivered in the opening third, Scrapbook is hardly your standard exercise in prurient sadism. Both of the actors deliver impassioned, uncomfortably convincing performances, often naked both physically and emotionally. Haack's modulations between shock, terror, and crafty manipulation are among the best in the rape/revenge subgenre, and the viewer's sympathies rest solidly with her all the way. Also known for his cult favorite Ice from the Sun, director Eric Stanze uses the digital video format to his advantage here, creating a smothering atmosphere of claustrophobia and using deliberately distorted, damaged video footage during one harrowing montage in a shower. Interestingly, despite the brutality of the subject matter, the level of onscreen gore is fairly low considering the film's reputation. Most of the shock value comes instead from the horrific intensity of the performances and the gruesome sexual violations of Clara's ordeal, including a brief sojourn into kinda-sorta-hardcore territory that's bound to keep this off the shelves at Blockbuster for all eternity. Fortunately the film does include a few brief glimmers of humor, however dark, including one particular monologue that deserves a place in the sick joke pantheon.
Sub Rosa's impressively mounted DVD edition of Scrapbook begins with jittery, tape-shredded menus which nicely capture the ambience of the film itself. The transfer looks extremely good, especially considering the formats involved, and the surround audio (featuring a nerve-jangling electronic/musique concrete score) is brutally manipulative. Stanze, Haack, and producer Jeremy Wallace appear on a highly enganging commentary track, in which all of them admit to certain levels of difficulty with making and even watching the film. However, they all have respect for each other and the final product, with several interesting stories about the technical execution. (Of course, be warned that it's also probably the only time you'll hear a horror film's lead actress recall, "We planned the urination. He asked me beforehand, and I said yeah, just don't do it on my face.") A very welcome 15-minute "Making of Scrapbook" shows the lighter and more clinical side of things, with an interesting explanation of how the crew participated in the scrapbook's creation and the surprising revelation that one performer had no idea how the final scene would play out while the cameras were rolling.
Other extras include two fairly intense Scrapbook trailers along with three other Stanze trailers, Ice from the Sun, I Spit on Your Corpse - I Piss on Your Grave, and Savage Harvest. A small stills gallery and a Biondo remembrance by Stanze round out the obvious extras, but there are also Easter eggs within Easter eggs. "Chokehold" is a grim black and white short film about drug addiction and blurred reality directed by Haack, while "Survive" is a Biondo-directed black and white short about a deranged homeless soldier, featuring Stanze as "the apparition." Stanze's music video for the Ded Bugs' "Slugs Are in My House," is a heavy metal homage to horror film classics, while "Shooting Slugs" is a nearly 8-minute compilation of behind the scenes footage from the music video shoot. It's fun to watch but not enough to shake off the lingering unease left behind by the main feature. And that's a good thing.
Color, 1999, 95m.