Color, 2004, 70m. / 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.

Color, 1994, 72m. / Directed by Eric Stanze / Starring Lisa Morrison, Ramona Midgett / Sub Rosa/Wicked Pixel (US R1 NTSC) / DD2.0

The first feature length project for indie director Eric Stanze and his crew, Savage Harvest, offers an intriguing look at a talent who would improve exponentially in just a few years. Strong on atmosphere and gore, the story focuses on fairly traditional monster mayhem with a few interesting wrinkles; though hampered by technical limitations and a handful of uneasy moments, this is definitely not your average first time horror effort.

Basically a Native American riff on '80s gore films (in particular Night of the Demons, our story begins traditionally enough with a gang of out-of-towner teens arriving at a remote cabin in the middle of the woods for some fun and relaxation. They swap stories to pass the time and, thanks to one youth's uncle on hand, learn the saga of a native curse, when one Cherokee centuries ago was killed by his tribe for practicing black magic and converting dark powers into a handful of enchanted stones. Naturally one of those stones is on hand now thanks to a recent flood and, when touched, can trigger a demonic transformation in its victim. Naturally it isn't long before said hellish powers are unleashed full force, leaving the survivors to fend off the fanged, forked-tongue fiends from hell.

Even at the beginning Stanze was efficient at finding good, believable actors who can deliver even the toughest dialogue with a straight face. Since the first half is almost devoid of monster mayhem, it's up to the characters and storytelling to carry the weight of entertaining the audience; fortunately everyone is up to the task and aided by some nice, moody nocturnal photography. Though it doesn't quite outdo Evil Dead on the red stuff scale, the climax is a rousing piece of work and caps off with a nice twist ending to boot. Compared to Stanze's more severe and outlandish subsequent films, this is almost a quaint and commercial project but will certainly satisfy horror fans tired of the bloodless, homogenized junk out at the multiplexes.

Shot for scraps on home video, Savage Harvest is creatively shot and compositionally savvy. However, it's also almost completely devoid of color, ranking up there with John Badham's strange desaturation of 1979's Dracula as one of the most peculiar color transfers out there. Even the blood looks dark and gray, which may have been an artistic choice but looks disconcerting all the same. Considering the grainy limitations of the source material, Sub Rosa's disc looks fine and sports a decent audio track with clear, audible dialogue and some nice sound effects mixing. Stanze and company return again for commentary time; the director turns up on the first track with producer D.J. Vivona for a technically oriented history of the film. It's on par with their other appearances and offers some handy advice about the do's and don'ts of filming under the most strenuous limitations. The five young leads take the microphone for the second track and offer a much looser, goofier commentary, more devoted to the rigors of enduring latex make-up and dealing with not always hospitable location shooting. Also included is a behind the scenes documentary, containing tons of footage from the shoot and interviews with the principals, as well as two Savage Harvest trailers, a still gallery, a Stanze music video, and more Stanze trailers (one each for Scrapbook and Ice from the Sun). The dark animated menu screens are very disorienting at first, so don't be afraid to punch around on your remote's arrow buttons.

Color, 1999, 95m. / 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.

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