Brutal ballets of viscera, abnormal psychology, and bitter emotional turmoil, Cinema Images presents in their double feature of And Then They Were Dead and Guilty Pleasures a deadly duo of deviancy and debauchery. Besides letting me play with words starting with 'd', the filmmakers herein bring class to crass exploitation fare, making what in other hands would have been little more than standard B-movie clichés unique products of fright and style. Despite being firmly entrenched in the sensibility of low budget slasher and exploitation movies, these features retain their own identities. Satisfying audience demand for surface thrills and the titillation of violence and sexual excess, these two features insist on revising the basic thrills and sensations of the older horror archetypes that both inform - and are informed by - them.
A grim if beautifully morbid examination of the inhuman-human condition, And Then They Were Dead plays havoc with the conventions of its genre every bit as slyly as it torments its surprisingly realized characters. 82 minutes of psychologically harrowing, physically gruelling suspense and sleuthing, this feature is a fiendish poem to perversity and pessimism that surmounts its meagre budget and story limitations. The filmmakers behind this unrepentantly fun yet culturally scathing sliver of nihilistic celluloid take themselves (and their story) seriously. As a result, so do you, investing your empathy and emotions into the sordid struggle for survival and self identification. Surprising in a genre (and cultural period) where people usually take a backseat to action, characterization is integral to this updated crime thriller, which itself is Agatha Christie seen through the bloodstained lens of a Giallo. Both victims and victimizers, the characters display a realistic, emotionally disturbing ambiguity. True to life, they are neither good or evil in the traditional sense, neither as clean nor as evil as we would like them to be.
Produced by Joe Zaso (actor in Nikos the Impaler & Demonium), and directed by Ray Schwertz, And Then They Were Dead is a heady, uncompromising, and unapologetic ménage of meaty gore, frenzied bloodshed, and nipple-nibbling erotica held together by careful direction and surprisingly adequate performances. In a story as clever as its violence is subversive, seven people are invited anonymously to dinner in an adequately decrepit old house whose tarnished elegance mirrors the distortion and ruin of the people within its walls. When the first person disappears, the film has already established its identity as a modern incarnation of the 'locked door' mystery. A 'drawing room' who-done-it of old imbued with contemporary characters, dialogue, and a sharp eye towards mental cruelty and physical carnage, the movie succeeds as a budget potboiler. Striving to play true to the traditional class of its narrative, the movie achieves this bid for grace without forgetting its purpose as an exploitation picture, appealing to both the gut-hungry maggot-muncher and the devotee of finely crafted cinema. While effects and production values aren't of the highest quality, and faults can be found with pacing and occasional lapses of story logic, the movie plays speaks highly of commitment.
Presented cleanly in a polish that lends a further glaze of professionalism to the movie without detracting from its moody lighting or naturalistic feel, the image of the DVD is free from major blemishes if not entirely spotless. Audio is serviceable, taking nothing away from the torrid sense of sensationalism that the movie happily aims for. Extras are minimal, although those included lend greater involvement to the story and provide a context for this splatter opera. Including a trailer, a documentary that provides a brief if thorough look behind the scenes, a photo gallery, and an informative audio commentary with both Joe Zaso and Ray Shwetz, the supplements are evidence of the respect with which Cinema Imager treated this little if interesting stab into psychological depravity.
Atmosphere is just as much a character as the flesh and blood personas who kill, die, and strip for our amusement, with the erotic excess of Darian Caine's supple body mirrored by skilfully shot interior scenes whose lighting and background music (by Function Zero) set the stage for physical carnage whose terror and misery is a reflection, of sorts, of the internal conflicts of characters. While not completely original (and what is?!), the movie is originally made - no small feet these days, padre.
Guilty Pleasures, the second feature on the disk, is exactly that - a love song to lewdness and the perverse pleasures of grindhouse goodness! A B-movie from the old school, proudly flying its freak-flag of unpretentious suspense, sexual fetishism, and the crass yet honestly brazen exploitation of freaks and fun, this movie is nothing less than a catalogue of celluloid depravity, reminding us of a time before censors took the fun out of fucking and the suffering out of violence. The movie never pretends to be fine art! Indeed, it's the filmmaker's honesty of approach and pride in purpose that makes it enjoyable if not memorable. This is the sort of celluloid beast that wants nothing more or less than to entertain with taunt suspense and excessive violence, and in this it succeeds. Joseph Zaso proves himself as capable of using story and character to create tension as he is at orchestrating inspiring moments of violence.
Emotionally scathing, this story of two women grappling with darkness of self and exterior madness while sharing an apartment is the cinematic equivalent of a vivisection! Silvia, one of the damsels in dementia, is caught in the grip of an obscene phone caller, a sexually rampant detective, and one prick of a boyfriend, while Rose Marie, her roommate- actress, has much to fear from an old friend who doesn't take well to being ignored. Between these two minimal setups are created moments of fear that operate on an emotional level both integral too and independent of violence.
Zaso captures the grime and helplessness, the false promises and allure, of not only his character's lives and loves but also the brick-and-block surroundings in which they live from one day to the next in an urban hell somewhere between the depressingly banal and the horribly surreal as the fabric of everyday life begins to unravel. There is no safety or stability in the world which Zaso constructs, no saving grace. The effectively written script, and above-board acting conspire to make this hoary homage to the stalk-and-slash sweepstakes a purposely sleazy slice of veering plot twists and mental aberration.
Again picture quality is adequate if not superb, although I suspect any faults of presentation could probably be tracked down to the original production elements rather than the clean-up duties of Cinema Image. Seedy locations, sinful sirens, and psychotic sickoes are captured in naturalistic lighting, adding further dislocating and demoralizing effect to an equally grim and grimy story of identity and dementia. Sound is clear, ushering the gasps, moans, and grunts into your living room as the story creeps into your psyche. Extras, while not as generous as those for the first feature, are solid, including a trailer, photo gallery, and commentary with Zaso.
A subversive take on torture, tension, and titillation, And Then They Were Dead and Guilty Pleasures make a frightfully fine double feature of sleazy sinema! Combining the exploitative thrills of artfully crafted moments of violence that explode no less than moments of emotional revelation in stories surprisingly tight in their construction -- and insightful in their ability to plummet the depths of character -- both of these impressively directed (if cheaply shot) movies more than make up for in enthusiasm, creativity, and the willingness to breath new life into funeral fixtures of our cinematic tradition what they lack in budgets.
Review by William P Simmons
|Released by Joseph Zaso|
|Region All - NTSC|
|see main review|