Thursday, January 20, 2011

Indie Horror Cage Match: Conjure vs. Ludlow

I'll go ahead and admit I haven't seen much indie horror, but I've always dug the idea that horror fans can pick up a camera, recruit a few friends, and become horror filmmakers. Watching both Conjure and Ludlow this weekend, I was struck by how indie horror is exactly like mainstream horror in one respect: sometimes it's great, and sometimes it blows so very hard.

I had never heard of Conjure before I saw it lurking on the pawn shop shelf.  The cover art evoked undertones of The Evil Dead, and when I read the back, the premise was intriguing: a successful illustrator becomes obsessed with a photograph of a house, begins drawing pictures of it and its ghostly inhabitants, until finally, the place becomes his reality. It was also written and directed by Matt Busch, a respected illustrator who has worked on film properties such as freakin' Star Wars. I was quickly convinced to part with my two dollars.

Ludlow, on the other hand, I've been waiting for over a year to see. It was written and directed by Stacie Ponder, who writes my favorite horror blog, Final Girl. When Stacie finally made Ludlow available for pre-order, I shelled out my eleven bucks on the first day. I don't know Stacie personally, and I paid for my copy of the DVD, so I consider myself an objective viewer, despite being a fan of her blog.

So which film blew the largest chunks?

Let me just tell you how relieved I am that the pawn shop, and not Matt Busch, got my two dollars. The most disturbing thing about Conjure is the bar code on the back cover. Why the bar code? Because it means he actually sells these things. The movie would be forgivable if it was just something he threw together to show to his friends, but a bar code? Really? I just checked, and the DVD is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Best Buy, and freakin' For real. And judging by the blurbs on the movie's homepage, there are people out there who actually liked it. Inconceivable!

My problem with Conjure is not just that the movie is bad (which it is), but that it isn't so much a movie as it is a shameless vanity project designed to do one thing: promote the Matt Busch brand.  I'm completely serious when I say that the first ten minutes of the "movie" is basically an informercial about how cool and successful Matt Busch is. At first, I thought this was a clever way to blur the line between fiction and reality. Problem is, it wasn't in service to the story, but rather to Matt Busch's ego. He makes sure the audience knows that he has been called "the rock star of illustrators," and that he lives up to the title. He parades us through his awesome house with his artwork all over the walls and its own bar for when he throws his legendary parties; he takes us to conventions where his fanboys gush about how great he is; and he bombards us with endless images of him kissing his super-hot wife who is, of course, a model.  Then the opening credits roll.  I wanted to turn it off right there, but the sheer undisguised self-lionization of the whole project was frankly starting to get hilarious.

While I thought the concept of Conjure was interesting, it went nowhere. We never get a backstory for the house or any sort of reason as to why these supernatural events are happening.  The design for the ghosts was quite good and suggested they all had distinct, interesting personal histories, but we never find out anything about them. They aren't even characters. They're just there to look scary and chase Matt and his wife around the house.

Considering that Matt Busch is an undeniably talented illustrator, you would think that at least he'd have some sense of framing and composition, but here too the film is lacking. Despite the snazzy cover art, the film has little in the way of production value, which blows my mind because they actually farmed out some of the special effects shots to a CGI production company. But the unforgivable sin of Conjure is its God-awful performances. If Matt Busch was a serious indie filmmaker, he'd have cast actors in his movie rather than plastering his own face on the screen for the full run-time. But that's just it, he isn't interested in telling a story, he just wants to add screenwriter/director/actor/editor/producer to his resume. Now, I didn't mind looking at his wife (and she seems like a very nice person in the special features), but she's not an actress either. I don't know about you, but if weird stuff started happening to me, like being suddenly transported to a freaky old house in the middle of nowhere, I'd lose my shit.  Not Sarah Wilkinson though.  Her reactions were so bland that it became my running joke to say, "Huh, that was weird. I'm gonna go do my nails now," every time there was a "scare." (Do I have to mention that it wasn't scary at all?)

Now, I'm not generally a negative person, so I actually feel bad for turning this post into a non-stop Matt Busch-bashing session. So here's a list of the things he did well:

1. Character Design - The sketchbook he keeps in the film is necronomicon-level cool. The drawings of the characters look so much better than the characters that you wish he'd just have made the story into a comic book.

2. Editing - Okay, I'm not saying the editing was great, but there were sequences that showed real promise.  Several segments were montages of creepy images that actually worked.

3. Visuals (sometimes) - Again, overall the visual style of the movie was subpar, but during those montage sequences, we get some cool lighting and compositions. Even the ghost make-up looks pretty good the way he shot it here. I get the feeling that Matt wouldn't be half bad as a music video director, as long as it's not for his own band.

In summary, sorry to trash your movie dude, but Conjure was, as the blurb on the cover states, "a 10-ton atom bomb." Emphasis on the bomb.

Then there's Ludlow...

If Conjure was strictly an exercise in self-love, Ludlow is a love-letter to horror itself.  Stacie Ponder has immersed herself in horror so completely that you can smell it seeping from her pores (or so I'd imagine).  Seriously, Stacie knows her stuff so well that she's hit a home run in her first at-bat. And the fantastic thing about Ludlow is that it's not just scary, it's actually got something to say.

The majority of the film takes place in a shitty little motel room out in the desert, and actress Shannon Lark is usually the only one on screen. The setting is stark, depressing, and perfect. The premise is much the same. 
Krista (Lark) has escaped from an abusive relationship and is drinking vodka and popping pills while waiting for her sister to come for her. Then she starts to hallucinate.  I can't say that I completely understand what happens to her, but I think that's intentional.  By the end of the film, the audience has no idea which bits are reality and which are hallucinations. This ambiguity is what keeps the movie in your head for several days after watching it.

There's also a bit of social commentary going on in Ludlow. To say it is about the horrors of abusive relationships sounds trite and preachy, but the movie isn't that at all.  Instead, it reveals how deeply abuse can psychologically scar someone. Krista is convinced that her ex has found her, despite the fact that she's in the middle of nowhere and the only other person who knows her location is her sister.  She can physically escape her tormentor, but he's gotten so deep into her head that he'll always be there, somewhere in the background.

I've got to give Shannon Lark props for at least half of the film's success. Her acting is riveting, and despite having to project terror and anger and confusion, she never overdoes it.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say her performance is flawless. Hopefully Ludlow is just the first of many Ponder/Lark collaborations.  Somebody please give these ladies a budget.  Not that they need one.  The genius of this film is that it does so much with so little.  Stacie shot everything herself on crappy equipment (and yes, it shows), but she still manages to pull out a few good scares and an overall disturbing viewing experience.

Although Ludlow is not without its flaws, I don't care about them. What I care about is that someone (okay, two someones) who is absolutely passionate about horror is going out there with no budget and showing the big boys how it's done. So if you've got eleven bucks and good taste in film, show your support by buying a copy of Ludlow. In fact, buy it for three of your friends as well. And donate some cash. Do whatever you can to make sure that these incredibly talented ladies continue to make kick-ass films.  Here, I'll make it easy for you... just click Yes! I want to support good indie horror

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