As digital presentation of new movies is overtaking theaters, so too digital versions are gradually replacing costlier DVDs. The conversion to VOD (video on demand) is happening even more quickly for film critics, as we are more often than not being sent online screener links rather than DVDs for our review of films prior to their theatrical release. Some of us love the online option because it allows us to watch a movie whenever and wherever we like as long as we have an Internet connection. It also is a valuable effort in the fight against film piracy. However, others among us, myself included, are bemoaning the loss of theatrical screenings and the communal opportunity they have long provided to watch a new release together on the big screen.
Two current cases in point are the horror-comedies Stage Fright and All Cheerleaders Die. Both are now available to the general public via VOD and the first will play theaters in NYC and L.A. over the next two weeks. All Cheerleaders Die is set for release in major cities on Friday, June 13th. While their artistic achievements and flaws were still apparent watching them alone on my home computer, both films could potentially come across as more entertaining in the company of other moviegoers in an actual theater.
Either way, All Cheerleaders Die is the better of the two and a possible cult classic in the making. Written and directed by veteran horror filmmakers Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson, its plot can be likened to a cross between Bring It On and The Evil Dead. A carload of high school cheerleaders runs off the road while being pursued by several male, athlete “dogs” from their school. When the boys refuse to rescue them and flee the scene, the witchcraft practicing ex-girlfriend of one of the cheerleaders casts a spell on their deceased bodies and brings them back to life. Hungry for both revenge and blood, which they now have to consume for their strength, the girls return to school as if nothing happened… much to the dismay of the boys in the know.
It’s nice to see a movie, especially of the horror genre, where the ladies are the smart and strong characters. “I don’t need you to rescue me,” one of them declares to her would-be male savior during a fight with a super-powered adversary. The three lesbian protagonists in the film and the casual acceptance they encounter from most are also welcome. While the cute, frequently shirtless, multicultural mix of “dogs” will be pleasing to gay viewers’ eyes, All Cheerleaders Die is definitely a woman’s show. From a comedy perspective, the movie doesn’t reach the inspired “cheertator” heights of Bring It On but it packs in more than a few funny lines (“Cheerleading is more dangerous than paintball, bitch”) and sight gags.
Stage Fright, meanwhile, starts out promisingly as Friday the 13th meets Glee, complete with musical numbers. A funny card at the film’s start even assures audiences that “the musical numbers will be performed exactly as they occurred” in this allegedly fact-based story. Minnie Driver appears too briefly as the singing star of The Haunting of the Opera, an obvious Phantom ripoff, before she is murdered in gruesome fashion by a masked killer (Driver’s casting is a clever nod to her turn as the vain diva Carlotta in 2005’s Phantom of the Opera movie).
Ten years later, the scarred children of Driver’s character are running the Center Stage Performing Arts Summer Camp along with their late mother’s producer (well played by the now mature former rocker, Meat Loaf). A large scale production number, “We’re Here,” performed by the arriving campers during the opening credits is the film’s best and includes a funny “I’m Gay” interlude. It is soon announced that their summer production will be The Haunting of the Opera, nonsensically set “post-modern style” in feudal Japan. This does allow for an amusing kabuki vs. bukaki reference though.
Following this excellent opening, Stage Fright sadly becomes way too serious until the climactic performance of the musical, as well as excessively gory. Lead actress Allie MacDonald is bland but the supporting cast of approximately 50 kids and teens is genuinely talented and charismatic. Writer-director Jerome Sable, who also co-wrote the songs with Eli Batalion, previously made the horror-musical The Legend of Beaver Dam and is apparently trying to carve out a niche for himself. Hopefully, he’ll be better able to strike a balance between the horror and musical-comedy next time around.
Another new VOD/DVD release, Truth (available from Canteen Outlaws), is similarly too serious by at least a third. It is an initially engrossing but ultimately off-putting psychological thriller by gay filmmaker-actors Rob Moretti and Sean Paul Lockhart, both of whom also star. We are introduced to Lockhart’s Caleb as he is incarcerated, apparently for an unspecified murder, and being interrogated by a court-appointed psychologist (played by veteran actress Blanche Baker, who looks rather unsettlingly here like a blonde Michelle Bachman). Via flashbacks, Caleb recounts his recent love affair with an older man, Jeremy (Moretti), as well as his abusive upbringing by a mentally-ill mother. Caleb’s initially healing relationship with Jeremy takes a decided turn for the worse once Caleb learns his lover has been keeping a big secret from him. He ends up kidnapping Jeremy and exacting a nasty revenge.
The only real reason to watch Truth is Lockhart. A former gay porn performer (as Brent Corrigan) and still very good looking, Lockhart is maturing into a fine actor. He is especially good here during his character’s angry, unhinged moments. Lockhart makes Caleb sympathetic even when one is uncomfortable with Caleb’s actions, and that may be the best achievement of any actor in any production.
Last but not least, 2013’s entertaining Hot Guys with Guns is also now availableon both VOD and DVD from Wolfe. Written and directed by Doug Spearman (Noah’s Arc), the gay-themed film spins an amusingly sordid mystery around Hollywood sex parties. Someone is drugging and robbing these parties’ A-list attendees, and it falls to a struggling actor-waiter and his ex-boyfriend to figure out whodunit. The screenplay, while not without its excesses, is generally a hoot and the film’s attractive, gay-list cast includes Spearman’s fellow Noah’s Arc alum Darryl Stephens, Jason Boegh, Kevin Held and Trey McCurley. Particularly good is the James Bond-ish opening credits sequence and theme song, which I highly recommend seeing/hearing on the big screen rather than one’s little laptop.
All Cheerleaders Die: B
Stage Fright: C
Hot Guys with Guns: B
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.