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.