Studio: Gravitas Ventures
Director: Douglas Rath
Writer: Anthony Bravo
Producer: Gregory Goodman, Paul Langh
Stars: Zak Hudson, Anthony Bravo, Janelle Odair, Michelle Campbell, Will Brandt, Malcolm McDowell
A low-budget horror film director blackmails a real serial killer into starring in his next B-movie.
Failed filmmaker Miles Fowler finds that the best way to recover from romantic rejection is to put one hand down his pants and the other on a spyglass while he secretly peeps an exhibitionist couple canoodling on Lover’s Lane. Miles’ vicarious sex session is interrupted without warning though, as a mystery man with a knife suddenly lets loose in a frenzied flurry of blood-spraying slashes. The initial terror of witnessing a surprise stabbing swiftly fades under the brightness of a light bulb however, when Miles instead sees inspiration for his next foray into the wily world of B-movie horror.
Nick is the real deal. And Miles is convinced that no one is better suited to play a fictional serial murderer than an authentic one. Except getting Nick to commit to a star turn in an indie feature might be a tough sell for someone more interested in real-world slaughter. Then again, Miles has a pitch for his project that is just as much of a killer: If “The Dead Zone” and “Deep Red” had a baby, and that baby was tied up and gangbanged by “Don’t Look Now,” “Threepenny Opera,” and “M,” then “The Whorehouse That Screamed” is a slightly more gonzo version of what that would be like.
If “The Whorehouse That Screamed” sounds like a movie defying description, then “Shock Value” trumps it times ten. Black comedy horror might be the closest categorization, although even that term inspires a conception that is not fully befitting.
“Shock Value” plays with a darkly cynical look inside the making of a low-budget horror film, as well as the culture surrounding that oft-neglected subsection of the movie business. It operates at a pitch that is comedic without needlessly drawing attention to the humor, yet the film concurrently keeps its feet planted in a mesmeric realm that is not quite silly and not quite surreal. It is something like the cracked characters of a Farrelly Brothers comedy occupying the subdued setting of a Coen Brothers thriller, where the environment is a skewed version of seeming normalcy that is partially indescribable.
Each actor plays an exaggerated personality type, yet no one does so with an exaggerated performance. This “easy does it” style of subtlety keeps “Shock Value” cooking on a steady simmer of oddly fascinating absurdity and unsettlingly moody weirdness. For a handful of unknowns with barely a half-dozen feature acting credits between them, their performances perfectly pace a precise line between both tones, and that gives “Shock Value” its uniquely appealing atmosphere.
Zak Hudson gives sad-sack schlockmeister Miles Fowler only enough misplaced enthusiasm in his severely limited professional abilities to remain lightheartedly likable, even with a nasty streak of self-absorbed narcissism, without stepping into a bear trap of campy buffoonery. This isn’t Johnny Depp as Ed Wood bulging eyes during filming to oversell how oblivious he is.
Michelle Campbell is similarly reserved as Miles’ mousey producer Justine. Like most things about “Shock Value,” the surface of her character initially suggests predictable stereotyping. Also like most things about “Shock Value,” Campbell then goes on a detour away from the obvious by wisely understating what she does with her part, remaining quietly passive, but always visibly engaged in her scenes.
Miles defends accusations against his questionable credentials by proclaiming that of the 14 films he has made in the last ten years, two of them have starred British horror icon Sir Edmund Dean Huntley. This immediately called to mind Malcolm McDowell, who has slummed it with a number of glorified cameos in forgettable genre films, but whose filmmakers tout such appearances as badges of talent validation.
At the time, I forgot that Malcolm McDowell himself appears later to play Sir Edmund Dean Huntley, making the joke even more relevant. That “Shock Value” has the guts to take even a somewhat veiled jab like that with McDowell present in the cast showcases its winking confidence. Speaking of McDowell, he is more than game for the gag. His inclusion as a washed-up egomaniac, whose idea for “an edgy, 21st-century reboot” of Dracula is to feature college kids recording a Transylvanian backpacking trip on their cell phones, genuinely makes sense and his single scene appearance is memorably spirited.
Whether sending up guerrilla filmmaking without a permit or throwing mud at sham film festivals whose only agenda is to justify laurel leaf icons on box covers for productions that pay to “win” awards, no stone is unturned in how “Shock Value” pastiches contemporary genre movies. Although even with a screenplay funneling filmmaking frustration into snappy satire, the movie is merely framed around the production of a horror movie. Its primary intent is not necessarily to be a purposeful parody of the genre. “Shock Value” has a self-awareness that is far more in check than that. Even when it is inspiring laughs, which is frequently, there is always an eeriness coloring the undertone with a feeling that laughing might not be an inappropriate response to what is occurring onscreen.
Some will be inspired to pick at those layers to see what “Shock Value” hides underneath. Others won’t. “Shock Value” doesn’t care if every viewer registers every reference or digs for every theme. The movie is a chameleon that can be interpreted in different ways, not the least of which is as a surprisingly sleek production for a film quietly released with nary a whisper nor a newsworthy note. “Shock Value” is shockingly well-conceived with on-pitch performances and an intelligent edge that makes it an ideal draw for fans fascinated by the strange subculture surrounding B-movie chillers.
NOTE: There is a brief end credits sting.
Review Score: 90