Madison County (2011): A Southern Slasher on the Cheap

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Madison County is a low-budget “slasher” horror film that was filmed in and around Russellville Arkansas. Written and directed by local boy Eric England, the film looks good. The production values are incredibly good, no doubt because England shot the entire film on the Sony Red digital camera.

I’ve written about the Red before in an earlier post: Film-making, the Times they are A-Changing. Monsters (2010). I was most impressed with the ability of the film-makers on Monsters who used the Sony Red exclusively on their film and actually used common software to edit the film in their hotel rooms while on the shoot.

I have no idea whether England did the same, but his film has the same high quality look as Monsters. Also, for a low-budget horror film, the sound is outstanding. Phillip Bladh who was the production sound engineer did a superb job of not “drowning out” the actors with the soundtrack.

My only complaint about the sound was the ADR which sometimes did not completely match the actors when they were speaking. This did not happen often enough to be really noticeable but it did show, perhaps, some of the actors’ inexperience with the whole “looping” process.

The film opens with an homage to Tobe Hooper‘s 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This opening shot told me two things: 1) That the director was a horror fan, and 2)That this film was going to be a ‘cut’ above the rest of its low-budget peers. I was not wrong. While the film received mainly negative reviews when it premiered at the LA Screamfest; Dread Central gave it an overall favourable review with a 3 out of 5 star rating. *Screamfest and Dread Central information courtesy of Wikipedia.*

Uh-oh, wheres old leather face?
Uh-oh, wheres old leather face?

The film follows the story of a group of college kids who are travelling to Madison County to interview the author who wrote an account of a local serial killer.  When they reach the area that the writer lives in, they stop “in town” for directions. They go into the local general store/gas station/diner to get information on the writer.

The lady running the diner tells the kids that the writer doesn’t live there anymore and that local folks don’t care too much for outsiders. One of the funniest lines in the film occurs in this little exchange. One of the boys asks if the whole town suffers from “staring disease” as the full diner’s occupants all stop and stare unabashedly at the group when they enter the premises.

The scene outside and in the diner also seemed to give a nod towards another film dealing with the vagaries of the south and its denizens, Deliverance.

"We don't care much for outsiders here, young man."
“We don’t care much for outsiders here, young man.”

Once the group go off to find the writer, we reach the heart of the story and the action. Nothing too blazingly original here, but England’s choice of location serves the film well and the introduction of a “pig-headed” serial killer (with one eye staring off to the corner of its socket) is a great touch and the actor who played the killer Damien (Nick Principe) does a great job interacting with his victims.

And now that I’ve mentioned one of the actors, here is the entire cast list:

*Courtesy of Wikipedia.*

Despite an ending that was “signposted”, the actual end of the film did surprise me a little as it came from a quarter not entirely expected. This film definitely did not deserve the negative reviews it received, I’ve seen much worse (just in the area of production quality alone, we won’t talk about sound) and in fact watched two films prior to Madison County this evening that were pure unadulterated dross and this  was head and shoulders above these films.

The lead protagonist James is played by another local lad, Colley Bailey; this was his first feature film and he did a passable job. He must be doing something right as he is still working in the industry. The whole cast acquitted themselves admirably on a location that must have been full of ticks, poisonous snakes and spiders and incredibly rocky terrain.

That section of Arkansas has more ornery critters per square inch than most other locations in the US. It also has an overabundance of rocks; ask any farmer. I probably enjoyed the film more than most, because it was filmed in an area just 2 hours away from where I grew up. This “inside” knowledge of the surrounding area increased my viewing pleasure.

My final (and slightly biased) verdict for the film is a 3.5 stars out of 5. Mainly for the pig-headed killer and the excellent production values of the film. I could not find an estimated budget for the film, but I am very willing to bet it was way under the million dollar mark. Yet the film does not look it or sound it. A great popcorn movie of the southern slasher variety.

Body language.
Body language.

Jägarna aka The Hunters (1996) Swedish Straw Dogs

Directed and co-written by Kjell Sundvall, The Hunters proves that Thomas Wolfe was right; you can’t go home again. Or at least you probably shouldn’t as the main protagonist Erik Backstrom finds when he returns to his hometown of Norrbotten. Erik is a detective from Stockholm where he gained the status of hero after catching a criminal who also shot him.

He returns home to attend his father’s funeral and he tells his brother Leif that he is returning to Norrbotten now that his kids have all grown and left home. He puts in for a transfer to the local police station and as there is a vacancy it is approved. He soon finds that small town police have a very bad habit of turning a blind eye to what they consider “victimless crime.”

In this case the crime is reindeer poaching on a massive scale. No one really cares about the Laplander’s animal’s being slaughtered as they are reimbursed by the government. Erik goes to investigate the latest incident and finds that his new partner is less than eager to pursue the matter. Once they return to the station, he discovers that the killings have been going on for a long time and he starts to realize the size of the problem.

As Erik delves deeper into the poaching problem, the local populace start to turn against him and the group of hunters he suspects include his brother. After a day of fishing one of the group Tomme starts needling Erik and he goes out to Tomme’s truck and confiscates his rifles to see if they are licensed or not.

They are not and the guns are supposed to be destroyed. Unfortunately Erik’s partner is related to Tomme and the guns are given back to him. As the heat on the men increases with each investigative act by Erik, they fall behind in their meat supplies and go out hunting in a bit of a hurry.

Tomme a Swedish good old boy.

They spy a deer while driving through the woods and using the truck they chase it down. Tomme shoots from the moving vehicle and when the men go to find the body, they find that Tomme has shot and killed a Russian blackberry picker by mistake. The men decide to cover up the accidental shooting and things quickly turn murderous.

In The Hunters, Kjell Sunderland tells us that you don’t have to live in the backwoods of America to find rednecks or people who act like creepy “inbred” hillbillies. The feeling you get after meeting the local “boys” in Norrbotten is that they would not be out-of-place in John Boorman‘s Deliverance country or the fictional Cornwall village of Wakely in Sam Peckinpah‘s Strawdogs.

These locals are not friendly if you don’t agree with what they do. Outsiders are treated as second class citizens and they are not above ostracizing people they don’t like. When they were younger Erik moved away while Leif stayed in the village. Their father was a cruel and harsh father who beat Leif often. In a scene early on in the film, Erik says that he always felt guilty about leaving Leif behind and asks if the “old man” beat him often. Leif replies off-handily that the beatings did not hurt him and that he was okay.

The film then goes on to show that Leif is far from okay and as the two brothers begin to argue the cracks of Leif’s “good-old-boy” facade begin to show and we realise that he is in fact a pretty nasty bit of work; someone who flouts the law and is not above shooting his own dog dead for disobedience.

This Swedish film was one of the biggest hits at the box office in 1996. *Courtesy of Wikipedia.* After viewing it, you can see why. The movie has been put together extremely well and the suspense of this tight intricate thriller is almost unbearable at times. It can also be very uncomfortable to watch and not a little frustrating as we see Erik getting more caught up in the action.

As Erik uncovers more evidence that will catch the poachers, more evidence becomes hidden. When he decides to “go public” the entire town and the police department turn against him.

The film captures the small town xenophobic practice of closing in against “outsiders” and the awkwardness of returning to your childhood home and finding that things have changed and discovering that even your family has a few skeletons in the closet. The Hunters feels like a Swedish Strawdogs meets Deliverance with a dash of Walking Tall thrown in.

Not a group that you’d want to go out drinking with; or hunting.

Spiritually the film belongs in that same sort of genre that so put the average tourist off of visiting rural America’s back roads. In this case though, I do feel like if I ever had the opportunity to visit Sweden, I’d stay on the well beaten track and avoid small villages. I am sure that Sweden is a safe place to visit as long as you don’t go hunting with the locals or wander out to pick blackberries.

Actor Rolf Lassgård plays Erik and he is an excellent actor. Well known in Sweden, he made me think (for some odd reason) of John Goodman. All the actors really sold the film with special kudos going to Jarmo Mäkinen as Tomme and Tomas Norström as the mentally challenged dog breeder Ove. I also fell in love with Helena Bergström as the Prosecuting Attorney and who has actually worked with Rolf before.

Another great “Scandi-crime” film and one well worth the effort involved to track it down. My final verdict is 4 and a half stars.

*Warning: this film contains scenes of animal dismemberment and a lot of blood and literal guts. If you are offended by seeing what appears to be real butchery of animals do not watch the first moments of this film.*

shoot
If animal bloodshed makes you feel like this, avoid the film. (actor Rolf Lassgård as Erik)

Missing (Sil jong) 2009: Grinding Gore

This South Korean horror/thriller film is based on true events. Between August and September in 2007 a 70-year-old fisherman murdered four women in Bosung South Korea. Notes from the entry of the film in AsianWiki state that the events have been fictionalized.

Directed by Sung-Hong Kim (Say Yes 2001) and starring Moon Sung-Geun, Choo Ja-Hyun and Jeon Se-Hong it tells the story of two young sisters who have the misfortune to cross paths with an old sociopath living alone with his disabled mother.

The old sociopath Pan-Gon (Moon) sporadically runs a chicken soup cafe on the outskirts of town. He is considered a sort of village idiot, harmless enough, whose wife left him years ago. He is an object of scorn from the men in the village who are jealous of the fact that his land is worth a fortune.

The first sister to meet Pan-Gon is Hyeon-A (Jeon) who is travelling with a producer who is going to cast her in his film. They see the sign advertising chicken soup and stop for lunch. While waiting for the soup Hyeon-A goes to call her sister Hyeon-Jeong (Choo) on her mobile (cell) phone. Sis is a bit of a worrier and tends to keep close tabs on her sister. While the two girls are talking on the mobile phone, Pan-Gon approaches the producer and asks if he will help him to move some bags of grain.

Explaining that he is old and has a bad back, Pan-Gon says he will give the couple a discount on their meal, if the producer will help him out. Slightly dubious and thinking that the old man is kidding him, the producer starts lifting bags of grain. In mid-lift, Pan-Gon takes a piece of piano wire and tries to strangle him. The wire breaks and the producer starts weaving to the door with blood dripping from his mouth and throat.

Hyeon-A comes up just as the old man buries a shovel into the producer’s head killing him. Panic stricken, she cannot move. Behind her is a dog that she is clearly terrified of and in front of her is the murderous Pan-Gon. Frozen in place, Pan-Gon shoves a rag over her mouth and she passes out.

She awakens in a dog cage in a room that has a bed, a couple of lights, and a sink. Pan-Gon comes in and tells her he won’t harm her.

This is the beginning of his systematic torture and rape of the helpless girl. Meanwhile the sister, Hyeon-Jeong is trying to track down her missing sister with little to no help from the local police.

This film was quite unpleasant to watch at first. The torture and the raping of the first sister was disturbing and hard to watch. The director did not show too much but it was still uncomfortable viewing. The other reaction that this part of the film evoked was one of anger at the lack of fight that the girl had. She might as well have had a tattoo on her forehead that said “victim.” The scenes did show just how unhinged Pan-Gon is and how far he will go to maintain absolute control over his victim.

When her sister Hyeon-Jeong comes looking for her you feel a sense of admiration  as she gets almost no help from the local police; despite this she refuses to give up. The police chief flatly refuses to help until she provides some sort of “hard evidence” that justifies his involvement. His assistant takes a shine to Hyeon-Jeong and gives her his card saying that she should call him if she needs any help or gets into any trouble.

Tag! You're dead!
Tag! You’re dead!

I first watched this film about eight months ago and gave up three quarters of the way through. I became frustrated at the lack of interest exhibited by the local police and did not really care for any of the local characters. It is almost as if the director decided to make a South Korean equivalent to the inbred hicks that inhabited the rural south in the film Deliverance. All that was missing from the murderous villain of the piece was the slobbery drawl of “You got a purty mouth.”

But impatience and annoyance aside, the film did actually pick up in the last quarter and became more interesting. But only because the last of the film becomes a cat and mouse game with bloody action and deadly consequences; and oddly enough that was what really let the film down. Despite being touted as being “based on true events” the film devolved into standard slasher fare, albeit with a bit of white knuckle action between the “hero” and the “villain.”

As much as I adore South Korea’s cinematic offerings, this was one film that did not fall into the category of brilliance that I’ve come to expect from the auteur directors who enthral their audiences. Interestingly enough, I did not care much for Say Yes either. The film was very similar to this one in that a lot of the gore and sadistic butchery seemed to lower the film from thriller status to what my daughter says is “torture porn.”

The fact that I had to try twice to watch the film from start to finish says a lot about the quality of entertainment that it offers. In essence, I would not recommend anyone rush to see it. It might be worth a watch is there really is nothing else on the telly and all the other films on Netflix have been watched already. Missing is a definite 2 star film that only gets the second star because of the fighting spirit shown by the second sister.

Now if the director would only stop moving!

Lake Wedington or The Tale of the Dead Fish

When I was old enough to drive on my own, summers were spent with various friends at Lake Wedington. I cannot remember ever laughing so hard at any other spot. So many memories and so much laughter. Once, a friend and I rented a canoe. I’ll call this friend Vinnie, as I do not know his whereabouts to ask permission to use his real name.
Vinnie was one of the funniest guys I have ever known. He had a knack at spontaneous humour that has never been matched by anyone else I have been friends with. Vinnie also had a knack of having funny things happen to him. Not because he was stupid (he was not, that spontaneous wit was the result of being incredibly smart) but, because he liked to try different things. Whether it was shooting buzzards from his bedroom window, or making a bomb to explode on his parents property, Vinnie was up for anything.
So Vinnie and I rented a canoe at Lake Wedington. Our aim was to do a sort of Deliverance trip, without the inbred dangerous yokels. We were going to traverse the many creeks that fed into the lake. Whereas this plan had seemed brilliant when we were discussing it, we had failed to plan for the narrowness of the creeks. We had also failed to take into consideration the lack of sufficient water in the creeks. And the wasps. These angry creatures immediately dive bombed the canoe the second we stopped because the creek had run out of water. This made navigation of the creeks almost “too dangerous” to continue. After almost being stung repeatedly while turning the canoe around, we gave up.

We decided instead to explore the lake’s shores. Of course while we did this we splashed one another with oar backlash and and generally tried our best to over-turn the canoe. While we were engaged in this horseplay, one of us spotted the fish.

The fish was huge. It must have been a carp, my memory is a bit hazy on this detail. I do remember it was about twenty-four inches long. It was also at least eight to ten inches high and about three inches wide. Like I said it was a monster fish. It was also just floating on top of the water. *this should have warned us immediately, but we chose not to think about what would cause a dead fish to float*

“Wow!” Vinnie was super impressed by the size of it, “That sucker is huge!” I agreed and we sat looking at it for at least ten minutes before one of us had, what we thought, was a brilliant idea. I cannot for the life of me remember whose idea it was. But the gist of it was this: We would get the fish into the canoe and row ashore. Once ashore we would tell all and sundry that we had caught it with our bare hands. Of course it never entered our juvenile heads that folks might just not be interested in this fact.

I was in the front of the canoe and closest to the fish. I put my oar under the fish and lifted it straight up and over my shoulder to land in the middle of the canoe. This is precisely what it did, hitting one of the canoe’s struts as it came down. As it hit the strut, it exploded. The fish suddenly turned into a green watery mess of fish guts, maggots and the foulest stench imaginable. Vinnie “feaked-out,” and leaning over the side of the canoe he began helplessly dry heaving into the lake.

After what seemed like ages (it seemed a lot longer due to the overpowering smell this mess made) He straightened up and in a strangled voice said, “Oh my God! If you had flung that fish back any further it would have landed on me!” He stopped and thought for a moment and then said, “And if you hadn’t thrown it far enough it would have landed on yourhead!” That was my cue to lean over the edge of the canoe and dry heave for a spell.

Of course the entire time these histrionics were occuring the stench seemed to build. We then started power rowing to the shore. We headed for the stall where we had rented it. Reaching the shore, we jumped out of the vessel and threw our life-vests and oars at the vendor. We ran all the way to the car.  We drove back to our respective homes with all the windows open. We also avoided going to the lake for about two weeks for fear that the vendor would remember the state of the canoe we had turned in

Of course having Vinnie as a friend meant that the next time we got together we would be doing something exciting. The next time we met it was to make a bomb.