Category: Reviews

[Review] ‘Meltdown’

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Meltdown (Dir. Jake Mulliken)

[Lucky 4 Productions; 2014]

After filmmaker Jake Mulliken won a RAW award for his directorial debut Meltdown, plans to turn the comedy horror short into a feature film were soon set in motion. The concept certainly had potential, as its ambiguous ending left the main character, Hunter, and his friends trapped by zombie hordes in Pittsburgh. This time around, Mulliken delivers a longer, bloodier, more ambitious vision that’s a worthwhile expansion on the 32 minute-long original.

Shot in Somerset and Venango County, PA, the new Meltdown follows Hunter (Mulliken), a well-meaning, but unsuccessful comic book writer intent on marrying his girlfriend (Hannah Horwatt) even after she abandons him on his birthday. When she rejects his proposal, and leaves him with a broken heart and a black eye, he retreats to a townie bar to numb his sorrows. Before long, he and his drinking buddies, the obnoxious sidekick Les (Seth Gontkovic), the sage bartender Zeke (F. Robert McMurray), and the determined love interest Callie (Alicia Marie Marcucci), are attacked by flesh-eating monsters. As their small town becomes overrun by zombies, the four shoot and hack their way to freedom and take refuge in a remote cabin.

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Much like its predecessor, the first half of the film leans more toward comedy with gross-out gags galore. Though similarities to the zombie rom-com Shaun of the Dead are apparent – an everyman hero and dead mother being among them – the humor avoids becoming derivative by often veering into absurdity (a moment when Callie instigates some inappropriate, pre-zombie kill flirting is especially hilarious).

The tone shifts to post-apocalyptic survival horror when the story fast forwards two years later and finds Hunter, his friends, and other survivors holed up in a wilderness stronghold called Whisper City. With Hunter as the leader, the group battles encroaching undead (dubbed Howlers) and murderous rednecks, all while dealing with unrequited feelings and dwindling supplies. Their situation worsens when a deceptively meek preacher (David Petti) and his young daughter (Rebecca Gruss) pose a new threat that could destroy Hunter and his clan.

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Mulliken, whose acting background includes appearances on Breaking Bad and In Plain Sight, tackles the lead role with confidence and a commendable disregard for his own safety (stunt work, in this case, is not optional). He obviously recognizes skilled actors, and everyone from the core players to the minor supporting cast deliver performances that add quality and just the right amount of emotional weight to the ultra-low budget indie. Actress Pilar Freeman in particular stands out as Murph, a tough-talking badass who exudes old school horror heroine swagger.

Meltdown benefits further from the impressive work of special effects coordinator Cody Ruch, whose rolling zombie heads, realistic gaping wounds, and detailed monster makeup ratchet the visuals up into some truly cringe-worthy territory. A number of spectacles also stand as testaments to the ballsy guerilla-style shoot, including a scene where an actual house goes down in flames.

For the most part, Mulliken’s script keeps the pace quick and the action plentiful, but the first 15 minutes are awkwardly focused on emphasizing the loathsomeness of Hunter’s obviously loathsome girlfriend – in retrospect, the time could have been better spent establishing Hunter’s relationship with Callie or his ill-fated mother. Like with any shoestring production, lighting, editing, and sound issues are present, but these flaws seem insignificant compared to the strength of the more crucial areas (writing, acting, and FX).

Overall, Mulliken and his crew have succeeded in crafting a solid, entertaining zombie flick that should please horror fans with its sick sense of humor and extra-splattery kills. With a reported sequel in the works, is should be interesting to see what other gory pleasures they have in store.

An Indiegogo campaign for Meltdown is currently underway to raise funds for film festival and theater rental fees, and publicity costs. A Meltdown DVD release is scheduled for sometime in November.

Horror Realm Film Festival Entry ‘Denizen’ Receives Director’s Cut

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Indie filmmaker Jacque “J.A.” Steel was a student at Penn Trafford High School when, in 1987, Dawn of the Dead actor and FX artist Tom Savini came to speak. The event inspired the Westmoreland County native to pursue a career in the movie business, and in the years that followed, she interned on big Hollywood projects (Hudson Hawk, The Last Boy Scout, Tales From the Crypt), and worked with horror directors Tobe Hooper (Texas Chain Saw Massacre) and Gil Adler (Freddy’s Nightmares, Ghost Ship). In 1999, she made her first feature The Third Society, which received international distribution through her music and film production company Warrior Entertainment.

Recently, Steel visited Pittsburgh to screen her films for the first time in her home state. Last May, she attended the Horror Realm Film Festival at the Hollywood Theater and dominated the event’s schedule with three entries – Blood Fare, a Civil War ghost story with a modern twist; Salvation, the story of a girl who rises from the dead to take revenge on her killers; and Denizen, a horror actioner about a group of scientists battling a bloodthirsty creature. Blood Fare won Best FX and Best Supporting Actress for Brandi Lynn Anderson‘s performance.

Defined by barebone production values and DIY special effects, Steel’s films would not look out of place in Troma’s vast catalog, or in the realm of the schlock factory, Asylum. In terms of content, they’re throwbacks to the bygone straight-to-VHS era, a time when production companies flooded video stores with independent features full of martial arts, muscle-and-guns action, and marauding mutants, and her newest venture is no exception.

On June 26th, Steel will premiere the director’s cut of her third indie feature Denizen exclusively on Dailymotion. Originally released in 2010, the film follows Sierra Deacon (Steel), Dexter Maines (Ben Bayless) and Dallas Murphy (Jody Mullins) as they race to save a small town from a giant, murderous monster. After several deaths, a special Army Unit, led by General Jernigan (Glen Jensen), is called in to contain the creature and, if necessary, destroy the town. It becomes a race against time to stop the bloodshed and prevent any further destruction.

Though the film struggles with technical issues, including often blurry footage, inconsistent sound, and choppy editing, its ambitious storyline – which includes everything from a military conspiracy to a fountain of youth – makes it a fun, if not shoddy, bit of low budget camp. It’s further bolstered by a very game cast – I was most taken by Jensen, who chews the scenery as the lunatic, cigar-chomping warmonger Jernigan. In its best moments, Steel, who wrote, directed and starred in the film, demonstrates a flair for unpretentious dialogue that’s rich with humor and Ed Woodian charm. These qualities figure into lines both absurd (when asked why her voice sounds weird, Deacon answers “I’m growing gills to breathe underwater”) and over-the-top (“History will find me a patriot!” Jernigan declares, putting a stogie to his lips). With the right financing, I can only imagine the boundless macho insanity of which Steel is capable.

Denizen hits Dailymotion on June 26th. The original Denizen feature will still be available though Amazon and limited festival screenings. Steel is also currently developing Denizen 1.1 as the prequel to the film’s storyline, and welcomes input from fans and critics alike.

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The Hollywood Theater Gets ‘Married In Spandex’

When Philadelphians Rachel and Amanda decide to marry, the wedding of their dreams becomes an event few will forget. Not able to legally wed in their home state of Pennsylvania, they travel cross-country to Ames, Iowa, where they plan to declare their love in front of friends, family, and a film crew recording every glittery, spandex-draped minute of it. But at a time when same-sex marriages are viewed as political acts, and couples feel pressured to represent the entire LGBT community, will everyone get behind Amanda and Rachel’s colorful matrimony?

Directors Devin Gallagher and Allison Kole return to their native Pittsburgh to premiere Married In Spandex, a documentary about one couple’s offbeat journey down the aisle. After a whirlwind courtship, their subjects, the laid-back Amanda and spirited Rachel, plan to take their commitment to the next level, foregoing the conventional flowers and lace for gold lamé leotards and a ceremony overseen by outrageous lady rapper/gay wedding officiant, Leslie Hall. The move is met with surprise from their peers, but for mostly practical reasons – one friend, Elaine, cites “the timing and the speed” for her shock before later going on to explain her anti-marriage philosophy. As for family, the only sign of disapproval comes from Amanda’s father, who, when learning of the body-clinging bridal outfits, can only comment, “I don’t think anyone should be wearing spandex. Period.”

The cast of characters surrounding the event provide some insightful, though not overly preachy perspectives on the state of gay marriage rights and the people swept up in its politics. Amanda’s parents, Donna and Barry, give some of the best commentary, as their interviews inject moments both humorous and genuinely heartbreaking. When Donna recounts Amanda’s coming out, she breaks down in tears not over her daughter being gay, but over the challenges she knew the young woman would face. Those challenges reveal themselves later when it’s learned that Rachel’s family, who have yet to accept her lifestyle, chose not to attend the wedding.

Those looking for major conflict, however, will not find it here – despite their respective beliefs, everyone loves and supports the pairing, and even Amanda’s traditional grandma can later be seen hoofing it at the reception. Instead of becoming an agenda-heavy soapbox, Married In Spandex lets small moments in the couple’s life speak to the larger issues. But mostly, the film is a wedding video you actually want to watch, a small burst of positive energy in an atmosphere filled with hate and ignorance. And that’s something we can all celebrate.

Pittsburghers can watch Amanda and Rachel exchange their vows at 8 p.m. on Sept. 7th at the Hollywood Theater. The one-time event will feature live music from performers Eve Goodman and Heather Kropf, a short film, and raffles valued at nearly $1,000, including concert tickets from Stage AE, gift certificates to local businesses like Wigle Whiskey and Commonwealth Press, and more. Equality PA will also be on hand to answer any questions about the fight for marriage equality in the Keystone state. Admission is $7 in advance and for students with valid ID, $10 at the door.