Cold in July (2014): Innocence Lost

Michael C Hall and Sam Shepard in Cold in July
The 2014 film Cold in July is another offering from the team that brought you Stake Land and in a sense, this new film is also about innocence lost. In the first movie, that starred Damici, it is the young protagonist being trained by Mister who loses his, in the new film by the team of Nick Damici and Jim Mickle, it is Michael C. Hall’s character Richard Dane who falls.

Based upon Joe R Lonsdale’s 1989 novel of the same name, Cold in July stars Hall as a “everyman” who shoots an intruder in his house and his life begins a rollercoaster trip of twists and turns that change his world. Initially he is stalked and threatened by the ex-con father of the man he killed, Mr. Russell, played by Sam Shepard, and he turns to his friend on the local police force Ray Price (Nick Damici) for help.

The police catch Russell and tell Richard that the man is back in prison. When Dane is at the police station, he sees a wanted poster with the name of the man he shot; the picture on the bill looks nothinglike the dead man. The frame shop owner tries to question Price about the discrepancy and the detective blows him off. Heading down to the station, he sees the police taking Russell out of jail. They put him on train tracks, inject him and leave him to be killed by an oncoming train. Dane saves the man and puts him in his late father’s cabin.

The two men dig up the man Dane shot and Russell learns that the body in the coffin is not his son. Russell calls a friend from Houston, Jim Bob (Don Johnson) who comes to help his Korean War comrade. It turns out that Russell’s son worked for the Dixie mafia and turned state’s evidence. He is now under the witness protection program and the police are helping the man to disappear.

Shepard’s character wants Jim Bob to find his son and Richard volunteers to help. When the men find Freddy Russell, the film takes yet another darker turn and Dane gets in even deeper.

Hall plays a man who finds himself firmly immersed in the underbelly of southern crime. Porn films, snuff movies, the Dixie Mafia and wholesale bloodshed all leave the man shaken and changed by the end of the film. The arc for Richard Dane is a long and complex one. At the beginning when his neighbors are starring at the man who inadvertently killed an intruder in his home, Dane is uncomfortable with his notoriety.

“I didn’t mean to shoot him,” Richard says. When he shakingly loads his pistol, it is obvious that the man is nervous and scared. Later when he confronts the man in his living room, the clock striking is the trigger that makes him shoot. The camera shows the vividness of the victim’s blood and later focusses on the couple cleaning up the crime scene and revealing just how destructive death is.

Later on, when Dane joins up with Jim Bob and Russell Sr, he slowly gets acclimatized to weapons and being around them but he still hesitates to pull the trigger. A tendency that almost costs him his life and that of his two comrades. The film moves from what could have been a question of morality and the cost of taking another man’s life into a modern noir of grim proportion.

The hunting down of the con’s son and the discovery that Russell’s offspring is beyond evil is as shocking as the video tape that they take from the giant thug they encounter at Freddy’s house. All three of the male protagonists knock their performances out of the park. Shepard as Russell is a wraith, full of remorse, rage and deadly intentions. He does not suffer fools and his life has been harsh.

Dane has lived the existence of the small town businessman. He has a wife and child, is well thought of in the community and has never killed anyone before. His gradual descent into the hellish underworld of pornography and the Dixie mafia is shocking and Hall convinces that his character will never be the same again.

Don Johnson as the Houston private eye and war friend of Russell is bigger than life and plays Jim Bob as a jaded man who has seen it all and paid the price. One can easily imagine that Richard Dane knows exactly how both men feel at the end of the film.

As a genre, Jim Mickle and Nick Damici have placed Cold in July in a category that could be called Southern Gothic Noir. At 109 minutes, the movie moves at a good pace and never drags. Some sequences of the film feel a bit like Cape Fear but not for long. The shape and direction of the movie changes quickly soon after and the viewer is taken into unknown territory.

Michael C Hall is well known for his portrayal of the serial killer with a difference in Dexter. The actor has given a brilliant performance in this film and his fans will not be disappointed with his work on Cold in July. This is a real 5 out of 5 star film that enthralls from the first frame to the last. It is streaming on Showtime at the moment.

Stake Land (2010): Zombieland With Teeth

This is quite possibly the best post-apocalyptic film I have ever seen. Stake Land was co-written by Nick Damici (Mister in the film) and Jim Mickle (director) and it is brilliant piece of horror Americana.

Jim Mickle’s direction is practically flawless, he leaves no loose threads and at no time did the film meander. This was Mickle’s second feature length film and it is  for that reason alone that he shows so much promise. Nick Damici as another of the “Jobbing Actor” types that until now has never been given a decent enough role to show his talent. This man will leave a huge mark in the business. Connor Paolo (as Martin [and what a lovely touch, naming the lead actor after the ‘vampire’ in George A. Romero‘s cult classic]) Paolo has been working steadily since 2003 and it shows. He did a good job.

I was surprised and pleased to see Kelly McGillis as the Sister. She’s come a long way since Top Gun and she hasn’t lost anything in the acting department. Michael Cerveris played religious leader Jebidia.  He is another actor who has been working steadily in the business for years and it shows. An excellent actor by any standard and one who, if they ever do a biographical film about Yul Brenner, should definitely be cast as Brenner. Danielle Harris played the pregnant Belle. Danielle is known as the new “Scream Queen” and as powerful as her performance was, I did feel it was a shame she didn’t have more to do.

Danielle Harris
Danielle Harris

The  “Readers Digest” version of the plot is as follows:  Young Martin finds himself in a world gone mad and overrun with vampires. After his family is slaughtered by a vampire he is saved by Mister. Mister is a vampire hunter and his reputation is starting to precede him. Mister and Martin are heading for “New Eden” in Canada, the news is that New Eden is vampire free. On their journey north to New Eden, they pick up: A nun, a marine and young pregnant girl. After they pick-up the nun, they briefly lose her, but she is one tough Sister and makes her way back to the pair.

During  their journey, they not only kill every vampire they come across but they also have to fight off the religious zealots who have a tendency to kill, rape and otherwise mistreat other survivors that have the misfortune to cross their path. While all this is going on, Mister is teaching Martin how to become a hunter like himself. The land they are travelling through is bleak and practically deserted. They do come across the odd “town” where survivors have banded together, but these towns are open targets for the vampires and for the zealots.

At one town they come across the pregnant Belle who hitches a ride as she wants her baby born in New Eden. The foursome then head out and they come across a marine who has been left out as a sacrifice to vampires by the zealots.   I will  stop here with the plot synopsis as I don’t want to have any spoilers in the review.

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This film was a great mix of  gore, scares, sadness, humour and pathos. The inclusion of the religious “cult” survivors and their rabid pursuit of God’s work was an excellent counter-balance to the stoic, taciturn hunter Mister. The cinematography was sharp and beautifully dark. The only problem I had with the film was the narration by Paolo. He spoke in a deeper more gravelly tone, to show that he was older than in the film. This worked well except for the music. The soundtrack was intrusive during the narration and I had a bit of a problem actually making out what Martin was saying. This is probably a personal problem as I do suffer from Tinnitus.

The casting for Stake Land was spot on. The people that the protagonists meet and interact with, looked like real people. The biggest ‘name” in the film was Kelly McGillis and she looks nothing like she did in her Top Gun days. Because they cast so well, the film, at times, almost felt like a documentary it added that touch of realism.

The vampires were excellent. Mickle and Damici chose to use the ‘old fashion’ type vampires for their film and it was a welcome change.  No one sparkled or wandered around in the sun. These vampires, for the most part, were mindless, savage drinking machines. They were not witty nor were they overly articulate. They were scary.

If you only watch one post-apocalyptic film this year, try to make it Stake Land.  It’s a film that’s got bite.

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