Furbish the Four Walls EVIL Lives Inside of Your Brain with “The Yellow Wallpaper!” (Hysteria Pictures / Digital Screener)

A prominent physician escorts his wife, Jane, and newborn child to a secluded countryside home after a severe episode of hysteria rattles Jane’s mental state.  For three months in the Summer, Jane is confined to the house grounds with strict instructions to do nothing to exert herself other than to partake in a little gardening.  Even writing, which was profusely Jane’s pursuit, is harshly forbidden.  The bedroom she shares with her husband is nearly unadorned with only their bed in the middle of the room and yellow wallpaper ornamenting all four walls.  As the weeks pass in isolation, Jane can’t escape the feeling the yellow wallpaper is creeping into her mind, imprisoning her, and driving her mad, lending her relaxing retreat from societal nervousness be laid to waste in solitude. 

Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” has seen a fair share of filmic adaptations in over a span of a century since being published back in 1892, but all of those variated works have been grounded in the last four decades .  Amongst the numerous shorts and a handful of features, the most notable version of “The Yellow Wallpaper” would be Logan Thomas’ 2012 interpretation, starring Juliet Landau, daughter of the late Martin Landau.  That’s the funny thing about public domain property is it opens up a plethora of pathways to spin and redefine creativity to rework Gillman’s feminist tale from the artists’ voices speaking of the times when women’s mental health, and mental health in general, was perceived naively as anxiety.  Kevin Pontuti steps up to the plate to take a crack at the spiraling to madness story as the filmmaker’s inaugural feature directorial of the American and Ireland co-produced celluloid from an adapted screenplay written by the director and co-written with the story lead actress and producer, Alexandra Loreth.  Under the duo’s entertainment banner, Hysteria Pictures in association with Ireland’s Emerald Giant Productions, the crowdfunded “The Yellow Wallpaper” project receives the latest contemporary treatment that brings Gillman’s words back to the screen.

Co-writer and producer, Alexandra Loreth, takes the lead as Jane coming down off the ledge of a nervous breakdown but still ballooning with instability that’s stretching her fashioned societal-front seams. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is also the California based filmmaker’s first feature film alongside Pontuti, basically penning Jane’s entire mindset of combating the time’s unfamiliar sexisms and mental health. Loreth crawls on her hands and knees, feign glossy, far away eyes, and be cold and distant to be in tune to a woman disassociating with herself and reality and, truth be told, portrays a convincible case that shows feature debut courage with on screen nudity and a stamina for being the focus for the entire 99 minute runtime; however these acts remain stuck in a excessive loop that roots Loreth’s character decline to one a taciturn setting, lacking range and depth to carry Jane into full metal straightjacket crazy. Opposite Loreth is Irish actor Joe Mullins as John, the physician, the only character mentioned in Gillman’s short story. Mullins impels like an automaton through the role with not a lick of zestful misogyny to contrast against. Loreth completely dominates the screen as you barely notice Mullins whisk in and out of scenes to medicate Jane or comfort her with little white lies. John’s dismissive attributes were more dispassionate with Mullins behind the wheel that leaves only half the work’s presence omitted and it’s sorely felt. In the role of Jane’s domicile caregiver, Jeanne O’Connor paves a road of sturdy era authenticity that also is fleeting from “The Yellow Wallpaper” and with her 19th century genteel aesthetics, we’re sucked into the period to keep us grounded in time. Performances round out with Clara Harte as the abstruse infant caregiver and Mark P. O’Connor briefly standing in as Jane’s doctor brother.

Pontuti and Loreth’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” targets the very essence of Gillman’s journal narrated themes of the downplayed and untapped mental health and the secondary expectations of women in 19th century society.  The differences between the 1800’s paper and 2021’s movie narratives are ever so slightly tweaked into the contemporary medium with Loreth narrating right from Gillman’s pages word-for-word in between the auxiliary scripted dialogue and the finale concluding toward a more grim avenue that will surely satisfy the more macabre of hearts.  Yet, not enough material could be extracted from the short story to entice as entertainment as the adaptation lingers in monotone fashion. Jane carries on about the woman trapped behind the yellow wallpaper and is shown going in circles of staring at the wallpaper, crawling on her hands and knees on the estate grounds (as describe in the short story), and just being listless throughout the entirety with her mental issues linked to post-partum and drowning in passive despair.  Perhaps better suited for a short film, as many have been completed already, audiences will become tiresomely and frustratedly lost in all of Jane’s 99-minutes of tedium as there just isn’t enough to sate a feature length film unless you add embellishing bells and whistles in the realm of supernatural or the puppeteering of an unseen force symbolizing Jane’s fractured mindset. Don’t expect “The Yellow Wallpaper” to paint a gripping tale of feministic horror as the story peels off in a superannuated ream of soapbox issues.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” made its world premier this past March at Cinequest in San Jose, California. The film is shot in a modernly unconventional 4:3 pillarbox aspect ratio aka the black bars on each side of the near square image presentation. The intention by cinematographer Sonja Tsypin (“Scare Package”) was to meet the age of Gillman’s original. Yes, I know in 1892, video wasn’t exactly a thing, let alone pillarboxed formats, but aspect ratio does point the a modern adaptation into the right blast from the past direction. What is also curious about Tsypin’s photography, and I’m not positive if this is in fact intentional or not, is the lesser frame rate that induces jumps in the picture in an almost lag effect that doesn’t add much but of annoyance to the viewing pleasure. I was slightly more impressed with Robert J. Coburns score fathomed the depth of disturbance going through Jane’s head and lured out the creepy that played like a broken-melody music box. There were no bonus scenes during or after the credits. Even with a well established and powerful ending shot, a preserving memento of the patriarchy’s ill-conceived mansplaining of a woman’s mind and body, and an intrepid performance by Alexandra Loreth, “The Yellow Wallpaper” stagnates in faithfulness to Gillman’s short and doesn’t offer new and improved ideas of century old, feminist gothic literature.

Obey EVIL’s Every Last Command! “Held” reviewed! (Magnolia Pictures / Digital Screener)

Emma and Henry Barrett celebrate their 9-year marriage anniversary by renting an isolated house complete with modern day automation bells and whistles. On the morning following their first night’s stay, they come to a horrifying realization someone was in the house and has displaced their clothing. As panic begins to set in and the couple try to flee, the house suddenly locks down, barring the windows and doors under the smart home controls, and a Voice commands them to obey every word in order to reveal devastating secrets and fix what’s broken in their splintered marriage by returning to antiquated ideas of a patriarchal system. Implanted with an electroshock device, Emma and Henry have no choice but to comply to every authoritative command, turning their romantic getaway into a house of wringing pawns.

Out of all of fight against misogynism and #MeToo inspired films that have been released in the last few years, Jill Awbrey’s scripted story is the most fascinating with an implausible overkill plot derived from, and this would be the scariest part, actual male frames of mind that were not systemically changed too long ago and are still ineradicably infesting a good chunk of male psyches today. The Fresno, California-shot film is entitled “Held,” a literally captivating suspense-thriller with whispers of James Wan’s “Saw” crisscrossed with, and I may get flak for this, Wes Craven’s “Scream.” “Held” is steered by Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, directors of “The Gallows” and the subsequent “Act II”, with a follow up with edgy confines of a pintsize location embellished with hidden rooms and secret passageways bringing normalcy to the forefront of topsy-turvy inequity. Under Cluff and Lofing’s Tremendum Pictures banner, “Held” is also produced by the directors alongside Kyle Gentz and Cody Fletcher.

Jill Awbrey is not only the screenwriter of “Held” but also stars as the Emma Barrett, an internally traumatized woman weary of strange men asking none-of-their-business questions. Her feature film actress debut plays opposite of vet actor Bart Johnson. The television and “Simon Says” actor Johnson puts on his husband hat as Henry Barret frustrated and disheartened by Emma’s recent lack of intimate interest. All of the Henry’s resentment and Emma’s self-reproach fades away when the house comes down on top of them, literally, in a barrage of hidden spy cameras, an uncontrollable to them security system, and by an obscured voice coursing through various wall intercoms with ground rules and instructions. Before trouble finds them in the guise of a vacay rental, Awbrey and Johnson make a fairly convincing seasoned husband and wife with all the rapport familiarity trimmings; Awbrey instills a meekish quality that makes Emma reserved in not being assertive enough to help herself, a condition stemmed from a traumatic event in her past as the opening moment of “Held,” while Johnson follows Awbrey’s lead in an equally good job showing a nurturing and doting husband who wants nothing more than to take care of everything for his wife. When the panic sets in and the possibility of escape seems futile, Awbrey and Johnson have to use separate approaching methods and mindsets that become essential to “Held’s” time warp speeding male chauvinism undertones. The supporting cast is folded into “Held’s” firm two-lead narrative with precision story placement from Rez Kempton (“Stag Night of the Dead”) and Zack Gold (“Fear Lives Here”).

“Held” is a fight in hell for women who feel that there is life bares no choice in the matter, when their voice is silenced by fear, when the prospect of death is as strong as a masculine build, and when an atrocious past experience hinders personal growth. The commanding-to-demanding obedience tale freefalls from worse case scenario to the absolute worst case scenario of a clear cut redeeming need for change and to once and for all extinguish the old-fashioned binary thought of men being stronger, faster, smarter, better, and more dominate then women. Speaking of old-fashioned, Cluff and Lofing incorporate 1950s era technology, such as a tube television set, rotary phone, and computers with nobs and dials, into the vacation rentals’ futuristic hardware as a symbolizing blend of the seemingly evolved present day man being motivated and driven by antiquated thoughts. The filmmakers also work in nicely Awbrey’s misinterpretation of a Biblical paradise by parochial views by warping the fabled beginnings of man and woman for their own selfish desires. The plot point twist was uncomplicatedly easy to predict but wasn’t necessarily unwelcomed either as the turning point layered a crazy subplot involving a radical marketed and hairbrained scheme with such audacity it’s felt unbelievable. And there were a handful of select scenes that did feel unbelievable by computing more a comical reaction than a petrifying one as perhaps intended. What’s probably more even more of a quirk in “Held” is the script’s subdued dialogue that garnished with not one single obscenity, but the action, which includes multiple graphic stabbings, a self-surgery extraction, and one particular scene where Emma is choked slammed through a wall, conveys extreme intensity in a superficial imbalance with the dialogue. Underneath the tender discourse, “Held” has a crupper of brutal violence that never slips.

Those following Ephesians 5:22-24, reading wives should “submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the LORD,” will find “Held” as a blasphemous counterattack of disobedience against the strong arming of a behind-the-times complementarian marriage. “Held” will be released by Magnolia Pictures as a Magnet released film, presented in a widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio with a runtime of 94 minutes. The Frightfest 2020 film is a perfect union of imperfect times and feminism fight back and director of photography, Kyle Gentz (“The Gallows Act II,” “Zombies 2”) captures it all with a bright, nearly sterile, perspective full from closed circuit voyeurism, to aerial shots of isolation, and to shaky cam with flashing lights to produce ear splitting pain effect. There were no bonus scenes during or after the credits. The Garden of Eden has been man and woman’s place of paradise and destruction but for Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing’s “Held,” the battle of the sexes is more barbaric than it is biblical when Adam’s machoism stakes claim to Eve’s forbidden fruit.

77-Minutes of Nonstop EVIL Combat! “Crazy Samurai: 400 vs 1” reviewed! (Well Go USA Entertainment / Blu-ray)

The Yoshioka clan has been dishonored by the death of two of their samurai warriors in an attack that has left the clan in desperate need for revenge.  Yoshioka clan’s sensei devises a plan to gather the clan’s best 100 samurai and 300 mercenaries and set an ambush for the one they call the crazy samurai, Musashi Miyamoto.  But Miyamoto strikes first, killing two Yoshioka clan members, sparking a torrent of warriors and mercenaries to besiege upon the crazy samurai and bombard him with attack.  The long sword combat stretches for over a hour as Miyamoto defends himself in an impossible task of standing alone while an entire clan’s army of swordsmen come at him from every angle, but Miyamoto is no ordinary master samurai, leaving the 400 to 1 odds in his favor. 

Journey back to Japan’s bushido era when honor and courage reign supreme during times of conflict and unrest with Yûji Shimomura’s nonstop, way of the sword, battle royale skirmish, “Crazy Samurai:  400 Vs 1.”   Originally titled “Crazy Samurai Musashi,” changed only for the home video release and on streaming platforms, the samurai film from Japan sticks out amongst the countless in the genre not for being filmed nearly a decade ago and finally receiving a theatrical and at-home release, but with a one particular, grand feature in being cinema’s first non-stop, one-take action shot for approx. 77-minutes, bookending between a story-functioning epilogue and prologue that clocks the film’s runtime at a total of 92 minutes from start to finish.  Shimomura, who directed the fantasy-action “Death Trance” in 2005 and the covert war drama “Re: Born,” helms a script penned by first timer Atsuki Tomori that bares little dialogue and even less plot to unreservedly place the juggernaut shot into the main spotlight.  The film is a production of the action enrapturing company, Uden Flameworks, based in Tokyo and with the North American streaming rights funded exclusively as a Hi-Yah! original film.

Reteaming with Yûji Shimomura in their third collaboration together following “Death Trance” and “Re: Born” if you follow each film’s sequential release date and if not following the release dates, then, more accurately, “Crazy Samurai:  400 vs 1” would be their second collaboration, Tak Sakaguchi, who cut his teeth in the cult favorite “Versus,” becomes a one-man show as the titular principal samurai, Musashi Miyamoto, slicing-and-dicing his way through a village horde of sword-wielding antagonists.  Kudos must be given to Sakaguchi with the stamina of a workhorse who carries the entire production on his back with a seamless performance without ever breaking stride, or taking a break for that matter, as you can see the sweat beading from his face and weariness in his eyes during the 77-minute long performance that takes a natural exhausting toll on his body, but the actor’s spirit to go on never breaks in any regards.  Sakaguchi fortitude for Musashi is unquestionable, but the backstory quivers at the knees with a character whose unable to be deciphered whether a hero or the villain.  The latter feels like the befitting choice as the plot begins with a Yoshioka clan ploy of arraigning a honorable duel between Musashi and the clan’s child prince after killing two of the dojo’s promising members in an act of defacing, but the ruse is an ambush to swarm Musashi upon arrival and execute him on sight.  Known for being a madman, Musashi comprehends Yoshioka’s deception and penetrates their defenses to immediately strike down the innocent child prince, who is only a pawn following council’s guide to be there, in the first blow that would set off a chain reaction of swordplay events.  Is Musashi that much of a cold-blooded lunatic to kill anyone, even children, and that is why he’s the villain who must be stopped by any means possible?  Or are the Yoshioka so dishonorable that Musashi will take on 400 or more well-armed men, and sacrifice one child, to slaughter them all for the sake of mankind?  Where Musashi motivations lie teeters into well after the credits roll, making the Crazy Samurai an enigmatic means to an unsatisfactory end.  Kento Yamazaki, Yôsuke Saitô, Akihiko Sai, Ben Hiura, and Fuka Hara round out the cast.

The possibilities of something going wrong is extremely high when attempting to film one long scene without breaks that include not only harmless slipups in choreography or dialogue, but also fatigue and risk of injury are likely to be greater.  Luckily for Tak Sakaguchi, and the production’s insurance company, there were enough water bottle and rest breaks strategically placed in between each pocket battle.  On the other side of the katana, the breaks frequent into improbability that there will be a full water bottle and a new sword just laying about in a Japanese village in the exact path of Musashi’s bore.  While most of the wardrobe and scenery feels authentic to the Edo-esque period and each actor puts in the effort to complete the scene, the unthought out choreography cheapens “Crazy Samurai’s” straight-gimmick concept by rotating out Musashi attackers who stumble off screen after being “killed” and rejoining the ranks on the backend.  More than once you’ll see the same faces go toe-to-toe with Musashi.  Rarely do the extras fall and lay dead at Musashi’s feet and only do so when the time at the present scuffle location comes to an end, but when the camera turns in a 360-motion around Sakaguchi, the bodies that had lain fallen previously where the fighting was held have now mysteriously disappeared. And the buck doesn’t stop there as Shimomura’s action film fails to impressive with the swordplay, outlandishly flaunts no blood other the visual effects spray in a blink-and-you-miss-it style, certain samurai have specialized wigs on to absorb Musashi’s signature Three Stooges-style bonk the enemy on the head move, obviously squaring off against more than 400 bodies, and, bluntly, the 77-minute runtime was tediously too long. You can also tell that the opening scene and ending scene were spliced into fold around the story’s trunk, probably shot years later from the original uncut scene, as we’re never able to connect the main characters from the opening and ending to the extended midsection in a slight of misdirection, obscure camera angles, and connecting only a pair of characters in act one and two.

Don’t be remiss to check out Yûji Shimomura’s see-it-to-believe-it “Crazy Samurai: 400 vs 1” on Blu-ray courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment. Unrated, region A, and presented in a widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio, Well Go USA’s Hi-Yah! original film allures solely by the idea of the stunt, but hones in on two contrasting cinematic styles. The opening and ending scenes are consistent with conventional action flicks with fast edits, slow motion, and purpose with what’s seen in the scene whereas the midriff feels like a third person videogame that dodges and turns around Musashi, rarely taking the focus off him, and “Jaws in Japan’s” Yasutaka Nagano’s near entirely mobile steady-cam is quite an impressive feat considering the amount of moving objects in the frame, even capturing a manufactured lightning storm with rain while the camera then attaches to a boom for an areal shot; however, aside from the post-visual blood and embroidered sound effects, there was little touchup work done to polish the outwardly raw appearance. The Japanese language DTS-HD Master Audio is solid and holds up during the action though having barely much dialogue to play with during the fight. Ambient levels elevate a little louder above norm to put the sounds of a struggle right in your lap, or your ears, while the percussion of traditional Japanese instrumental, in the tune of war, plays erratic at times on the soundtrack. The Blu-ray is encased in a cardboard slipcover of the same illustrations and pictures as the snap case. Bonus material only includes the international and domestic trailers of the film. Yûji Shimomura and Tak Sakaguchi’s ambitious feat deserves a master stroke commendation for pulling off a historical and strenuous deluge of action, but “Crazy Samurai: 400 vs 1: fails to muster much more than that with threadbare editing and tip-toe choreography too dishonorable for the likes of feudal Japan.

Own or Rent “Crazy Samurai: 400 vs 1” on Blu-ray and Other Formats. Click to Poster to go to Amazon.com.

Two People Living in Different Times Linked By an EVIL Secret. “Dead Air” reviewed! (Freestyle Digital Media / Digital Screener)

As a single parent of two teenage girls, William stows away the painful memories of the death of wife some two years ago.  When rummaging through boxed away belongings, he stumbles upon an old ham radio and a diary that once was his late father’s, who tragically was killed during William’s youth.  Psychiatric sessions aim to resolute a traumatic event from the past William can’t seem to recall and has plagued him over the decades and well into adulthood, but all his problems converge when he befriends another amateur radio user, a woman, that simmers a progression of unraveling his past rooted by an unfathomable secret the woman holds that will collide William’s past and present to alter his future. 

Not to be confused with the 2009 same titled film of bio-terrorism turned zombie horde starring “The Devil’s Reject’s” Bill Moseley or mixed up with 2000’s “Frequency” where Dennis Quaid’s character phenomenally reconnects with his deceased firefighter father over an old ham radio, Kevin Hicks’ “Dead Air” also shears linear time by embracing supernatural elements over the air waves of an archaic means of communication and though flesh eating maniacs don’t ravage the world, another terrible humanoid race in the Nazi’s are brought to the proverbial table.  Nazis, traumatic past, jumbled paranormal radio transmissions, clandestine spies – Kevin Hicks directs a multifaceted suspense mystery thriller penned by wife, Vicki Hicks, marking yet another notch in their collaboration history that includes a strong history of horror-thriller credits from 2010, such as “Paranormal Proof,” “Behind the Door,” and last years “Doppel.”  The husband and wife combo produce the “Dead Air” under their homegrown production company, Chinimble Lore.

However, Kevin and Vicki Hicks do a little more than just be a presence behind the camera, they’re also in front of the camera, co-starring across each other as the principle leads who never come face-to-face as they interact solely by tuning into the radio frequency of the ham radio.  Their respective roles of William and Eva douse “Dead Air” with plenty of cover-your-base exposition in building a long distance friendship that turns sour when truths are revealed by supernatural circumstances.  Before the pinnacle reveal, a stitch in time ripe to be altered, Hicks has to be a widowed husband and father of two teenage girls while parallelly secretly dealing with an unidentified trauma from his past.  The trauma doesn’t peak through in Hicks’ performance as William goes about his day either emotionally comforting his temperament diverse daughters with the loss of their mother or always sitting in front of the ham radio eager to speak with a newfound chat buddy, the adversely taut Eva.  Vicki Hicks shelters in place as the paranoid agoraphobic, though not yet understanding what that term means just yet, as the cagey Eva and Hicks cements Eva’s covert dealings with suspicious eyes and a cryptic gait that tells us she’s chin deep into counter intelligence.  “Dead Air” focuses nearly exclusively on the William and Eva radio hour, but minor characters are sprinkled for support traction with Luca Iacovetti, Chris Xaver, Ryan C. Mitchell, and real life sisters playing sisters on screen and co-producer Mark Skodzinsky’s daughters, Madison Skodzinsky and Mackenzie Skodzinsky. 

As far as indie films go, Chinimble Lore is well versed in the expense saving concept providing “Dead Air” with limited locations of about three or four primary small and conventionally decorated indoor sets, low-key in the little-to-no high-dollar, high-concept action, and having the filmmakers step into the shoes of the principle characters of William and Eva. Don’t expect “Dead Air” to be knocking socks off with mind blowing choreographed sequences or any type of painstaking visual or practical special effects in a story concentrated script constructed to be a fable filled with second chances and righting the wrongs through unexplained phenomena; yet, when blindly vehement to correct the past, the unintended butterfly effect could also take away what’s precious to you. Vicki Hick’s script meets that cautious tale bar, but doesn’t exceed the darn thing as the mystery element, William’s insights into who Eva’s true self and calling and how he’s supposed to stop her despite living decades a part, to which the film could only express verbally instead of plastering a veneer to show, can be quickly solved in “Dead Air’s” blueprints of foreseeable plot points. One thing that teased the imagination and should have been explored further is William’s psychiatrist performing hypnotherapy to unearth his trauma, but then opens the Pandora’s box of well, why the hell didn’t the psychiatrist try this in the first place?!? William notes spending $40 an hour on therapy sessions and we see him sit in at least 3 times with dialogue extending that to a higher number. Either William’s psychiatrist is a hornswoggling swindler or a daft healthcare worker with poor practice management. Either way, team Hicks, between their repertoire of directing, screenwriting, and acting, can’t smooth out the film’s rough patches enough to be an original twisty thriller backdropped with an ethereal external force communicating from beyond the grave to save more than one soul, leaving “Dead Air” radio silent.

Freestyle Digital Media sends signals from the dead with Kevin Hicks’ “Dead Air” available now on Video-On-Demand across North American digital HD, satellite and cable VOD through platforms Including streaming services iTunes, Amazon Video, and Vudu and cable services Comcast, Spectrum, and Cox.  The 91 minute runtime could have been cut to a leaner 70 to 75 minutes to not only dilute the impact of a dialogue-saturated narrative but also trim a forced subplot of William’s cancer-struck wife that doesn’t quite enact the depth to William’s background that it was intended to do.  Presented in a widescreen 1.78:1 aspect ratio, cinematography by Kyle Carr is digitally clean with a blanketed combination of hard and soft lighting in a rather warm glowing color palette of yellow, red, and jade, but the camera work and shots are standard in technique, not offering much in the way of style since most of the shots hover on medium closeups of William and Eva chit-chatting over the radio.  The light rock tracks composed by Kevin Hicks and performed by the versatile music man Lonnie Parks are sprinkled in to engage a sense of passing time correlated with the storyline events, but the soundtrack’s genre tone sounds like a transistor radio out of place of a story built on a ham radio’s static and garbled messages and would have been more poignant with more of Parks’ mellow-brooding engineered score.  The digital screener was not accompanied with any bonus features and there were no bonus scenes during or after the credits.  Part of “Dead Air’s” demise is the fact that “Frequency” established an already familiar foundation over 20 years ago with nearly the same plot studded with star power and a large pocketed budget, but the story’s engaging enough with supernatural radio waves and the clandestine ties to Nazi spies to keep a progressive interest despite our good hunch on the climax and the finale. 

Rent or Own “Dead Air” digitally on Amazon Video by Clicking the Poster!