EVIL Gets Loopy in “Welcome to The Circle” reviewed! (Artsploitation Films / Blu-ray)

Greg and his young daughter Samantha are turning out the lights on a camping trip in the woods.  When a bear attacks in the middle of the night, Greg awakens in the care of a commune-like camp.  Injured but alive, Greg is given the grand tour of the encampment of a cult known as The Circle where he rejoins with his happy-go-lucky daughter and meets a few other strange and unusual members who worship the legacy and the omnipotent existentialism of The Circle’s creator, Percy Stephens.  What the father-daughter combo don’t realize is that The Circle is a demon worshipping cult bidding on the whimsical demands of Percy Stephen’s rancor and malice.  A group of outsiders led by Grady, a former cult member in his youth, are determined to rescue and reprogram one of the followers close to them, but step into an upside-down world, demonized with smoke and mirrors, set on swallowing their souls for the sake of Percy Stephens delight. 

A diabolical drip of disorienting deception, “Welcome to The Circle” is a roundabout from Hell, cordially ostracizing the love and blessings ideology for more sinister, soul-sucking profit of an unconventional demon film.  “Welcome to the Circle” is a Canadian-made debut independent feature from write-director David Fowler and Fowler, better known for his work on documentaries, knocks on the door of insanity with a tailspin narrative that collides John Carpenter’s “In the Mouth of Madness” with Clive Barker’s “Lord of Illusions” with Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s “The Endless” rapping at the door and the results are an enigmatic nightmare full of stone faced mannequins, body inhabiting occupations, a series of blackhole peculiarities, and being eaten alive by crazed acolytes.  The Vancouver, British Columbia based Canadian company, High Deaf Productions, embarks into the feature film bazaar, with Mack Benz and Michael Khazen serving as company producers, with co-production association from Corvid Arts and Upfront Films.

Broken into two parts, the narrative opens the first portion up to familiarize with the cultist sheep in the stark white attire of wolves’ clothing that throws Greg and his daughter Samantha’s kismet into the uncertain pit of a demon’s impish thirst for souls.  When introduced to Greg (“Dragged Against Concrete’s” Matthew MacCaull), much of the character falls below the waist side as a single father detached from his own child and surrounded by conniving zealots that funnels into becoming weak, if not also immaterial when MacCaull is unable to explore Greg more in depth.  Nothing against MacCaull who performs well enough with an unsympathetic character that has a cold shoulder connection with his insubordinate child and no real background fuel a feed into Greg’s worth as one of the mainstay roles.  I also thought a little more on The Circle’s followers would be constructive to The Circle’s reason for fervor and appeal, but instead, Sky (“Supergirl” television series’” Andrea Brooks), Lotus Cloud (“Pacific Rim’s” Heather Doerksen), Rebekah (“The Wrong Daughter’s” Cindy Busby), and Matthew (“The Unspoken’s” Michael J. Rogers) are members developed only inside a crumbling hierarchy structure obtaining cryptic messages from a demon, Percy Stephens, from beyond their plane of existence.  Percy Stephens is perhaps the best complex character in the fold without having a stable foundational actor in his shoes and is played by various faces of the film’s cast able to reach back toward an immense and mysterious backstory that involves a slew of daring and impressive accomplishments and a demonic tiger shark that may or may not be Stephen’s aquatic damnation to Hell.  The second portion moves greatly away from Greg and his daughter and into a rescue operation, led by the unfiltered and unorthodox Grady, a former The Circle youth who landed in a psyche ward only to be hired to infiltrate the cult to extract Rebekah, paralleling his motives to understand the mechanics of the cult that led to the disappearance of his mother.  “Stan Helsing’s” Ben Cotton delivers a performance that is anything but vanilla as the sharp wit and cool as a cucumber Grady, dominating each and every scene in a disheveled and aloof veneer that becomes Grady’s best defense against Percy Stephen’s engaging entanglements.  The cast rounds out with Taylor Dianne Robinson (The Twilight Saga:  Breaking Dawn Part 2), Hilary Jardine (“Teen Lust”), Matt Bellefleur (“In Their Skin”), Christian Tessier (“Night of the Demons III”) and Jordana Largy (“Rememory”). 

It suffices to say that David Fowler’s topsy-turvy and boundless the fake-fake, a descriptor of the story’s in-between existences, is an alternate universe complete with hope chest portals and wraith approaches that will disrupt the audio and visual perceptions, disconnecting the straightforward wiring only to cross the stepping stones of normalized story structures to fissure what we know into a fractured reality.  The foyer to oblivion, the fake-fake, isn’t an easy one to digest and Fowler is very much aware of the real-real consequences of traversing into the world of the fake-fake.  Fowler forces you to pay a penance for crossing the threshold that will cause dizziness and nausea, the same affects the characters sometimes experience through the compressed spaces of time and planes of The Circle, soldering an unintentionally immersive experience with the combination of simple and natural cinematography infused effects that spun, tilted, and corralled acute fear and isolation from under the DP supervision of Sterling Bancroft. In regards to Fowler’s darkly imaginative story, the script a lively progression of diverse ideas and concepts that construct a little world within a bigger world, especially on a modestly tight budget that can’t afford mind-blowing special effects, but the cohesiveness is heavily reliant on the character’s to explain the actions that are occurring to progress an outline and much of that explanation falls into poetic prose and riddles. Characters Percy Stephens and Grady to much of the grunt work in vocalizing the visuals, but the course is a rocky road and with every bump there’s a meaning within a meaning and to know the meaning is to meaning to know. See what I mean? “Welcome to the Circle” chips away the substantial concrete barrier with a bombardment of incorporeal flak that comes in wave-after-wave of full blown auteur creativity.

 

To get caught in the loop is to loop in getting caught and that’s what Artsploitation Films has done by acquiring and distributing “Welcome to The Circle” on a Blu-ray home entertainment release. Presented in a widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the digitally recorded picture is about as immaculate as they come nowadays with tactile textures of grainy log of the cabins, the floral of the forest, and the scruff of Matthew’s bristly beard all looking particular sharply detailed albeit some minor fluctuations of softness seeping into the brush and into more dreamlike sequences and though flat, the colors due run unbridled with the forestry green and the eggshell color of mannequin “skin” that renders subtle differences more distinct. Darker scenes render nicely and smoothly without as much of a flicker of interference and Bancroft’s use of depth forces audiences to focus only on what’s extremely close up or what’s faraway by way of adjusting the focal length. The English language 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio also has little-to-no complains with a well rounded discernible platter of clear, forefront dialogue, depth and range of vocals and ambience, and a combination score and soundtrack by Reid Hendry with original and haunting folk tracks by Jo Krasevich do an insidious one-two punch that bruises the soul. The not rated, 93-minute film comes with only a theatrical trailer in the bonus features. Despite the dense ambiguity that surrounds the film, the demonic ensnaring doom that accompanies “Welcome to The Circle” is, simply put, psychosis in a bottle that director David Fowler just effortlessly uncorked.

Own “Welcome to the Circle” on Blu-ray!

Shooting Up EVIL May Cause Hellish-Hallucinations! “Ozone” reviewed! (Temp Digital / Blu-ay and DVD)


On a stakeout to meet an informant, Detectives Eddie Boone and Mike Weitz are ambushed by a drug dealer named Richter and become separated in the fierce firefight. While detective Weitz tracks down their traitorous informant into a decrepit druggie den, Boone wrangles with Richter who injects him with a new street drug called Ozone. Unable to locate his missing partner for days, Eddie breaks standard police protocols to find his longtime friend and partner by digging into Ozone’s grimy underworld filled with powerful hallucinogenic manifestations from the drug that turns users into mindless mutated addicts and killing machines. Eddie will have to go through Hell to stop the distribution of Ozone and to rescue his partner from an elevated and fully transformed drug lord with unconventional powers that believes Eddie is key to his world dominance.

First, “The Dead Next Door.” Then, “Robot Ninja.” Now, TempVideo and MakeFlix present the next super-duper, 2-disc collector’s release from the visionary B-movie director, J.R. Bookwalter, with his 1995 horror film, “Ozone.” Co-written with the visual effects artist from “The Talisman” and “Subspecies 4: Bloodstorm, David A. Wagner pens his one and only option in which Bookwalter immediately took a shining to following a string of very taxing and bargain titles for a flyby label. Able to by clairvoyant with how “Ozone” should be constructed, deep inside the creative process of his auteur mind, Bookwalter felt desire to oversee the production, taking the helm on just how he would make an ambitious project come to a life on a microbudget. “Ozone” parallels the subculture of powerful narcotics, like heroin or cocaine, and amplifies the conditions of the euphoria side effects to monstrous, unpredictable heights through a labyrinth of what the hell is going to happen next? Mostly shot in Akron, Ohio, “Ozone” is a production of Bookwatler’s own company, Suburban Tempe Company aka TempeVideo, on an astonishingly low-budget of $3500 and a handpicked cast and crew.

Comprised mainly of Ohio based actors, “Ozone” finds it’s star in James Black who has previously worked with Bookwalter on “Zombie Cop” and “Chickboxer.” Black went on to stardom, making a living off of the Hollywood limelight by having roles in such films as “Soldier” alongside Kurt Russell and “Out of Sight” with George Clooney among many other television and movie roles, but Black’s humble beginnings shouldn’t be overlooked. His performance as the lead character, Eddie Boone, highlights his attributes as a leading man. The physicality of the former professional football player with good looks catches the corners of eyes that the man from Lima, Ohio can act as well as do action scenes professionally and effectively despite budget limitations. However, “Ozone’s” talent doesn’t end there with Black’s co-stars who wear multiple hats in other roles or behind the camera. Case in point is Bill Morrison and James L. Edwards as the two makeup a total of five characters in the film as well as serving to be critical components as crew. Morrison dons two roles plus crafting the special makeup effects and miniatures. Edwards supports three roles, including the main antagonist in what looks like a hefty body suit. Morrison and Edwards going through the rigors of makeup to pull off various characters with polar personalities provide “Ozone’s” well-rounded, always interesting, idiosyncratic individuals Eddie encounters through his misadventures of drug-fueled nightscapes. Tom Hoover, Michael Cagnoli, Michael Beatty, Jerry Camp, Mark S. Bosko, Wayne Alan Harold, Neil Graf, Leo Anastasio, Parris Washington, and Lori Scarlett in an unforgettable birth of a mutant baby scene rounds out this cast of colorful characters.

“Ozone” is a gooey, gory, gumshoe of a horror film baked on narcotics laced with nightmares and for the budget price of a dime bag, J.R. Bookwalter injects a full-fledged, black tar, down the rabbit hole thriller that’s akin to a Clive Barker Faustian concept. “Ozone” draws similarities from “Hellraiser” as well as could find strong congruence with “Lords of Illusions,” a film which was released the same year as “Ozone” in 1995. Instead of magicians of the occult, the use of a more salt of the Earth drug is a powerful, tangible substance that reflects relevance more so than of fantasy. Audiences can relate more to the idea of the twisted wrenching of habitual use of not only illegal drugs, but with perhaps medications, alcohol, or any number of other addictions that seemingly take over one’s life and replaces it with the worst part of themselves. The mysterious encounters Eddie Boone is subjected to during his tour of the drug enlightens the hardnose detective to an out of body horror experience wretched with disfigured humanoid shells and countless mutants determined on cornering the market on living not sober not on their own volition. The use of the new morph special effects merged with the respectable practice effects by Bill Morrison and his team gorge on body modification and overpowering death as synonymous to being high.

Just like “The Dead Next Door” and “Robot Ninja,” “Ozone” receives the king’s treatment into a duel format, 2-disc Blu-ray and DVD Signature edition release. Shot on Super-VHS C videotape in 1995 and then transferred to DVCAM in 2002 for the DVD remastering, the 2020 upgrade used the DVDCAM masters were captured as ProRes 442 HQ QuickTime video files for a new and comprehensive color upgrade, additional deinterlacing, and amend any other Super-VHS C tape imperfections. What resulted for the Blu-ray release is a super clean and enhanced look presented in the original 4:3 (1.33:1) aspect ratio of perfectly color corrected hues, brilliantly effusing various colors to coincide with the artistic storytelling of Eddie Boone’s trippy trek through “Ozone’s” chthonic evil. Seldom do minor blemishes pop up; in fact, you won’t even really notice when godsmacked on “Ozone’s” uncanny use of budgetary limitations. The English language DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound mix is equally as impressive. Pulled from the DA-8 tape achieve of the original audio masters on an eight-track cassettes, all of the dialogue and some original sound effects were used as the basis for the new restoration in which Maui Holcomb and director, J.R. Bookwalter enhanced over the course of 18 years. Dialogue cuts to the front of the line, mixed and balanced well with the explosions, gunfire, and other skirmishes, delivering a flawless and discernable product. Depth and range render nicely throughout. The DVD specs are the original 1994 VHS version also in the original aspect ratio with an English language Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix. Jens C. Moller grand score elevates “Ozone” to the “next stage,” as the street mutates would coin it, offering up a bountiful, robust score that simultaneous blends action and horror seamlessly. If you’re looking for every nook and cranny bonus material on “Ozone,” you got it with an extensive bonus package on the Blu-ray disc that include a 2020 audio commentaries from J.R. Bookwalter, a 2003 commentary with the director and star, James Black, 2003 commentary, entitled “Street Zombies” from Bookwalter, bloopers and outtakes, production art and stills, news’ topic reels from 1993, promotional gallery, “Ozone’s origins explained through “Paying for Your Past Sins” with J.R. Bookwalter, “Into the Black” with star James Black and how he became involved, a 2003 location tour with actor James L. Edwards, behind the scenes footage with the only audio available is a commentary by J.R. Bookwalter, early test footage, and Tempe trailers. The DVD has additional material, such as awesomely isolating the musical score, 2020 audio commentary with Doug Tilley and Moe Porne of the No-Budget Nightmares Podcast, scenes from the Spanish dubbed version, the 1992 B’s Nest Video Magazine Intro, the original trailer, the Japanese trailer, the “Street Zombies” trailer, and more Tempe DVD trailers. The not rated, 81 minute, region free release also has optional English and Spanish subtitles. Inside the casing, which has a reversible wrap cover with the original VHS cover, housed inside a cardboard slipcover of revamped artwork by graphic designer Timothy Rooker includes an eight-page color booklet with liner notes by Tempe historian Ross Synder; it’s a good read up on “Ozone’s” conceiving and a little history on SOV of the 1990’s. Exquisitely enhanced and lush with material, the Signature Edition of “Ozone” just might be the definitive one of the wildly insane and bloodied occult cop fiction of independent horror ingenuity.

Available for pre-order. Hit shelves August 11th!

Evil Thoughts: Out with the Old, In with the New?

MOH

Masters of horror. You know. Those legendary filmmakers that become iconic in our beloved genre. The monumental men who made history by evolving the monsters, killers, and madmen to the very monsters, killers, and madmen we see today on the big and small screen. These giants of horror are household names to ordinary film fans and Gods to those who dedicate their lives just to live in a moment in a very small portion of their foot heel shadow. You, reading this op-ed, know the very names of these directors without even me mentioning their names. For those who are virgin to horror, however,…

George A. Romero
John Carpenter
Wes Craven
Stuart Gordon
Tobe Hooper
Joe Dante
Clive Barker

The list could go on with more familiar names. Familiar. That seems like a term for old people now, like myself, the thirty-years of living on this planet. Why is ‘familiar’ now for the old fogies? For one, I don’t think much of the younger generation are aware, or even respect, the above list of names. And why should they? Because, secondly, those listed about have done squat in, I don’t know, how many years? Think about. The Masters of Horror are no longer producing any great horror films and there seems to be no clear cut answer to why. A couple of theories swirl in my clustered little mind.

Theory one
They’re old. Getting elderly is tough and when you’re youth runs dry, you’re energy goes right along with it. Take Romero for example. The man is 74 years old. Wes Craven is even older than Romero by one year. Could their old school imaginations keep a generation, doped up on ADD medication, entertained for more than 10 minutes. Much of today’s horror is about the blood and the tits and the “how scary you can make a CGI monster.” Creativity has gone out the window and I think that “Saw 7” and the soon to be fifth sequel to “Paranormal Activity” have proven just that.

Rhauer

Theory two
Old school horror has run out of ideas. Can you remember the last time Romero, Carpenter, Stuart has made a good movie? Romero’s last film was “Survival of the Dead” back in 2009 which flopped. Before that “Diary of the dead” and that was another flop. Since the turn of the century, the king of the zombies has only directed four films with Land of the Dead being the more successful. Take a look at “Halloween” director John Carpenter. “Halloween” is the highest grossing independent film ever, yet also in the last decade, nothing spectacular from Carpenter. His vision of “The Thing” is classic, his character Snake Plissken is iconic in “Escape from New York”, “Big Trouble in Little China” is timeless cut, but “The Ward” and “Ghost of Mars” have been absolute below the bar with audiences. This theory doesn’t exclude international directors because we can also examine, point in case, Italian director Dario Argento. Argento famous for his colorful, psychedelic intense films such as “Suspiria”, “Phenomena”, and “Don’t Torture the Duckling”, has been reduced to direct a “Dracula 3D” movie starring Rutger Hauer. Freaking RUTGER HAUER!?!? Don’t get me wrong, I love Rutger Hauer – “Blind Fury” and “The Hitcher” are some favorites – but you can’t have a strawberry haired Van Helsing. Maybe you can – I don’t know. Let’s not forget poor Wes Craven who can’t seem to get off the “Scream” franchise train and everything else he touches turns into a limp, floppy mess.

Now that we’ve gone over my theories, there lies another question to be discussed. Who are the NEW masters of horror? Today’s films rely on blood and guts and not so much suspense and story. Would Eli Roth be my first example of a more current master? His films seemed to be well criticized – “Cabin Fever” with a fresh 63% and “Hostel” with a fresh 61% respectively on Rotten tomatoes. Also, his latest project “The Green Inferno” held promise until it’s untimely indefinite on hold status declared a few weeks ago. Who else? Alexandre Aja? More shock than schlock but hasn’t really produced anything original as he’s banked on remakes – “The Hills Have Eyes”, “Piranha 2” – but with his breakthrough hit “High Tension” and his upcoming release “Horns” starring Daniel Radcliffe, we could be watching a master in the making.
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I want to hear from you. Who do you think will step in the shoes of a master? Lucky McKee? Adam Wingard? Let me hear your choices and your thoughts on these!