MFF review: Life, Death, Summer and Zombies

25 May

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Make Out With Violence (2009) 105 min. Director: The Deagol Brothers. Writer: The Deagol Brothers, Cody DeVos, Eric Lehning. Starring: Eric Lehning, Cody DeVos, Brett Miller, Leah High, Tia Shearer, Shellie Marie Shartzer.   Cinematography: David Bosquet, Kevin Doyle, James King. Film editing: Brad Bartlett, The Deagol Brothers. Original music: Jordan Lehning and The Non-Commisioned Officers.

 

cinemagrade A- John Hughes meets Night of the Living Dead meets Tarkovsky’s Solaris. That’s how one of the Deagol Brothers, directors of the indie horror comedy Make Out With Violence,  pitched the film before it’s screening at the Maryland Film Festival on Friday May 8th.

It’s true, the film incorporates all of those above mentioned elements but that description only gives you a point of reference, it doesn’t prepare you for the kind of film Make Out With Violence really is. The Deagol Brothers, a filmmaking troupe who arent really brothers or named Deagol, have put together something really special here; a teenage comedy with heart-felt laughs, an art-house drama with real pathos, and a horror flick with a human dread that reaches down into the bones. Make Out With Violence carries the kind of quirk that made previous indie faves like Guatemalan Handshake and Napoleon Dynamite so endearing and it embraces the darkly comic in a way that few films have since Heathers.

Its much more than that though. Make Out With Violence, at its core, is a summer seranade to that most certain of constants: loss.

High school has ended forever for five friends and the summer before the rest of their lives sits in front of them. The sleepy small town they call home is in the midst of a balmy warm spell and cicadas chirp in the nearby fields. Each day has that hazy golden promise of runs through the sprinklers with friends and revelatory late night conversations by the pool-side. But nothing is as sweet as it should be for the Darling twins Patrick and Carol, their friend Rody and gal pals Addie and Ann. Wendy is missing. In fact, Wendy, the sweet and gentle core of this breakfast club has been missing for awhile; well before graduation. So long that the town has given up looking for her, and as the movie opens Patrick, Carol and their little brother Beetle(who narrates the film) are on their way to Wendy’s funeral.

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The details of the funeral and the various car rides, half-finished conversations and long walks back from the service all feel uncomfortably real. Three years ago, on May 11th, my wife and I lost a mutual college friend of ours who was taken suddenly in a tragedy that was hard to process.  It was a bracing jolt of reality and sadness, and it hit not only us but almost our entire community of friends. Something had changed for us; one of us was gone and it was a strange feeling. The next few days were different for everyone. The filmmakers understand this. They also understand that while the funeral wil be the end of it for many, there will always be that group of people for whom it is only the start of something more painful and complicated.

The characters at the fore-front of Make Out With Violence, regardless of how close they might have actually been to Wendy, have all been hit exceptionally hard by her passing from their life and the rest of the film addresses what happens after that long trip back from the cemetary. There is a scene outside of a darkened home when Patrick returns and realizes no one else is back yet. He doesn’t go inside, but simply sits on the porch and stares. Going in would assuredly be worse, especially for Patrick. He was in love with Wendy.

 

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One of the Deagol Brothers after the MFF Friday night screening of Make Out With Violence

Things fall apart for the little group after the funeral. Carol, who has been pining for Addy since day one,  follows her around like a puppy dog and tries to be emotional available to her after Wendy’s death. Addy is having none of it. She’s too busy feeling guilt and apathy and providing Wendy’s grieving boyfriend with what the movie snarkily refers to as “sleaze comfort.” Abby’s friend, Ann Huran, in turn, has been eyeing up Carol for quite awhile and he is all too aware of it.  Ann Huran is the kind of girl who is so forthcoming and deliberate that it never dawns on anyone to use anything less than both her first and last name everytime they see her.

Beetle, who at 10 or 11 is significantly younger than the others, spends alot  of time drawing pictures of Wendy as an angel, and thoughtfully observing the patterns and new behaviors of his friends and family in the wake of this tragedy. Patrick, he notes, is taking the death of his friend particularly close to the heart and making sure that everyone around knows it. He was in love with her  but never told her, and now he spends all of his time considering the lost words, memories and possibility that left with Wendy. His friend Rody dodges the entire thing by leaving for the summer and entrusting the care of his parents’ home to the Darling boys.

And then, Wendy comes back. From the dead.

 With this turn of events,  Make Out With Violence springs to new life and quickly became one of the most compelling viewing experiences I have had this year.

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 Beetle and Carol are wandering in the woods hunting cicadas and find Wendy…alive. Sort of.  Her body has been tied between two trees and she stands there, head lolling to the side, body decaying as she violently struggles against her bonds. Carol approaches her and sees the truth– She is a zombie. A full blown, creepy make-up, R0mero-would-be-proud, zombie. Beetle and Carol take her down, wrap her in a tarp and take her to Rody’s house where they show her to Patrick and he decides to keep her in the bathtub.

From this point on, Make Out With Violence follows the brothers down a two-lane, twisted highway to Wierdsville. On one hand, the story continues to develop as a wide-eyed John Hughes coming of age rom-com would, with each of the brothers struggling to connect with their beloved and agonizing over the newly presented possibility that their secret longing might be finally professed. Patrick and Beetle send Carol out on a step by step quest to win Addie’s heart while Patrick dotes on his lost-but-found love in the same way that those other Darling boys did with that other Wendy in Peter Pan.

On the other hand, everything is beginning to look like The Twilight Zone; Wendy is a freakin’ zombie, Addy is emotionally vulnerable, distraught and sleeping with her dead best friend’s beau, and as Patrick becomes uncomfortably obsessed with the living-dead girl he and Carol start drifting apart.  Beetle is on the sidelines watching it all and stumbling over new, disquieting realizations like “Dead things come back different. They can’t ever be what they used to.’

Everything that takes place in the second half of the film is more or less the pay-off for the film’s set-up–if a film like Make Out With Violence can really have a traditional pay-off. It may play by the rules of narrative storytelling and realistic character development but its primarily an internal, evocative meditation on loss and the way it can become a catalyst to new beginnings. It just happens to do this with alot of knowing detail and humor. It embraces the hokey self-seriousness that accompanies first crushes and unrequited loves and doesn’t shy away from the grislier physical aspects of death.

The going is tough for the Darling boys. Yes, Wendy was once their friend and they loved her but everything that is left behind has a stench, and a darkness, and theres the little problem that all she wants is living things to eat. At one point the brothers make a shake out of raw meat and she simply pukes it back into the tub. They try a rat and she seems to like this fine. Later Rody’s parent’s dogs find their way into the bathroom and….nevermind, you really don’t want to hear.

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The Deagol Brothers are really talented as both technicians and artists, and if you take some time to check out the cast and crew on this thing you will realize that alot of the efforts here are interconnected. The acting is very good for an indie film of this nature, and the actors, especially Addie, really understand the ways in which people shut-down and close-off in some areas while opening up in others when something catastrophic happens to their world. Wendy, as the zombie gets to play a rotting shadow of the thing she once was and her greatest gift to the movie is making lost motor functions and grim eating habits hilariously poignant and queasy. Brett Miller as Beetle narrates the movie in a small, meek tone that reminded me of Linda Manz’s narration in Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven. Speaking of Malick, it’s clear the Deagols are fans of his because it shines through in the way their movie looks.

The cinematography is amazing. There really isn’t another word for it. The entire town is caught in a never-ending summer, and both shadows and sunshine are made to be menacing. There is care and detail and patience in the way shots are framed and scenes play out. The screenplay, the visuals, and the soundtrack(more on that in a sec) are perfectly in sync. A night-time rendezvous by the pool between Addie and Carol is a perfect example. As the two grow closer all of the information on screen builds to an emotional peak and before she feverishly kisses Carol, Addie exclaims “Lets get AWESOME!’ It’s funny, it’s a pay-off, and it adds resonance to the scenes that follow it.

The films finest piece, however, is a morbid candle light birthday dinner between Patrick and the now putrifying Wendy. Eric Lehring as Patrick gives a detached performance that seemed like the work of a fledgling actor early in the going, but upon reflection he captures perfectly the self-delusion necessary to keep viewing this walking husk as his lady love.  He bakes her a cake, dresses her up, lights candles and sits with her, and for a moment it could be a sequence from a different movie. This would be the point where Eric Stoltz or Anthony Michael Hall would finally win over the girl with their earnest and selfless devotion. Instead Wendy makes a shambles of the cake and falls head-first into the carpet. The following interplay between the two works as drama and as a portrait of the film’s themes played out visually.

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 The soundtrack is one of the film’s strongest elements. A stirring collection of 80s style glamrock, otherworldly ambient tracks and pieces both poppy and disturbing, its been designed to fit the movie so well that it isn’t absurd to think of Make Out With Vi0lence as a musical at times. Its all original music, done by the Non-Commisioned Officers who happen to inlcude Eric Lehring(who plays Patrick and helped write the film) and Jordan Lehring (who plays Rody). I was so impressed, that when I learned that the Deagol Brother present at the screening had copies he was selling, I immediately bought one. They can also be picked up off the film’s website HERE.

In closing, Make Out With Violence is a wonderfully strange and challenging film. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it after the first viewing. In the days that followed, it grew on me quite a bit. It attempts so much, and brings so many disparate pieces together, that its abrupt ending is rather jarring. But then, loss is also like that and to make the decision to leave the audience in the middle of that feeling rather than give them an artificial sense of closure is ultimately the right decision. It ends the film the same way it began; with a hole punched right into the middle of the world. Death can do that. Expect to hear more from me on this one, as I’m sure it will be present on any end of the year’s best list I might do.

I’ll also keep you posted on the film’s progress and if it gets a theatrical, dvd or any other kind of release.

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One Response to “MFF review: Life, Death, Summer and Zombies”

  1. Alla Lockaby February 10, 2010 at 10:09 am #

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