Panic Fest Film Review: “Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes”

Starring: Luisa Taraz, Frederick von Luttichau and Anna Platen
Directed by: Kevin Kopacka
Rated: R
Running Time: 73 minutes
Dark Sky Films

What happens when a couple inherits a big haunting castle? Margot (Taraz) and Deiter (Luttichau) have a lot of work to do, and while neither seen worried about the creaking and dark corners lurking around the castle, both are terrified by something in the cellar, so much so Deiter doesn’t even want to go down there again. Sounds like a great horror film set-up, right? “Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes” isn’t a horror movie though, and honestly, I’m not sure what genre it fits in other than made-up ones mouthed by people on an acid trip.

Talking anymore about the plot behind this film would give a lot away, even though it appears I said next to nothing about the script or motives of the characters. I don’t want to spoil a film, regardless of how niche it is. I will say the twists and turns the movie takes are surprisingly interesting and inventive for a film that appears to be a general homage to European horror films of the 70s. While the film isn’t a tribute, the aesthetic it’s going for allows for it to evolve and flow naturally throughout its peculiar tale. I would say I’ve seen films that have done what it does better while I’ve also seen films, like “mother!,” fail spectacularly at what “Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes” is going for.

A little while ago I reviewed “Strawberry Manson,” a film that I would almost consider to be a cousin of “Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes.” There is this indie vibe that radiates throughout the film, despite the fact some scenes are so impressive they could be in any modern-day blockbuster. The relation between the two films appears to be one of ambiguity. Both films have a distinct message, but it’s so layered under popping visuals and a thick atmosphere. Layering it on the original message allows the story to branch off into different notions and ideas. Both films are a head trip, providing some sustenance throughout their brief runtimes while ultimately leaving a curious viewer hungry for more. The only problem is, I’m not sure I could watch either movie ever again.

There’s plenty of fine or even great movies I’ve only watched once. I thought “Walk the Line” was an impressive biography about one of country music’s greatest acts, but I have no interest in rewatching it. So, while rewatchability isn’t a defining factor of whether something is good or not, it does beg the question why something so curious and unique doesn’t elicit an emotion that makes me yearn for a second or third helping. I equate this to the “Infomercials” that Adult Swim airs. The line between “surprisingly rewatchable” and “once is enough” is so thin in these surreal ideas, the scale could tip either way because of the slightest thing. For me, the movie is mystical, but also kind of straightforward in that you either get it or you don’t so you won’t have to worry about watching it again to see what you missed. In that regard, “Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes,” is worthy of a gander, especially since you’ll know right away if you’re in tune with it’s funky vibes or turned off by its puzzling madness.

Panic Fest Film Review: “Malibu Horror Story”

Starring: Dylan Sprayberry, Robert Bailey Jr. and Valentia de Angelis
Directed by: Scott Slone
Rated: NR
Running Time: 93 minutes

If I had to pick a genre that’s hard to create something new in, it would definitely be the found footage genre. From “Cannibal Holocaust” to “Paranormal Activity,” there’s a lot of genre busting films that manage to take the basics of the genre and elevate them to a new brand or style of horror. But this seems to be a genre that’s more miss than hit in my opinion. For every “V/H/S,” there’s at least a dozen bad ones like “The Amityville Haunting” or every “Paranormal Activity” film with a number after it. So that brings us to 2022. I’m not gonna lie, “Malibu Horror Story” isn’t necessarily a good title for a found footage horror film, but never judge a film by its title or genre.

We open with four paranormal investigators in a reclusive cave amongst the mountains north of Malibu, California. They’re in this desolate location to film their latest episode and investigate what happened to four teenagers back in 2012. For more backstory on the teens, the film shows the investigators showing off what work on the episode has already been completed. From that point, we dive from found footage of the investigators into their show which features newspaper clippings, interviews with law enforcement and of course the found footage left behind by the teenagers. To the general public, the found footage only revealed that the teenagers were dirtbags. The search for the teens pretty much ended when the found footage showed the teens doing drugs and partying more than it actually show what happened to them. So, you could say it’s technically a found footage film within a found footage film or within a fake paranormal investigator show all wrapped around a conventional claustrophobic film. Either way, without getting too deep in the thick of it or confusing you, “Malibu Horror Story” structures the story like a puzzle so that we can comfortably sit back and let the mayhem and story unfold as the pieces fall into place.

The set-up and premise are actually quite clever in that it never becomes too confusing and it manages to give us enough exposition to explain things while making us thirsty for more of the mythos behind the cave and the potential Native American curse that is about to show our paranormal investigators what happens when they meddle in something they shouldn’t, much like those dirtbag teenagers. The film has some effective scares once the monster/entity/ghost/thing makes its appearance. Of course, you have to wonder why the teens continued forth once things were clearly going awry, much in the same way the paranormal investigators find out they’re someplace they shouldn’t be.

When characters keep filming, I always wonder if that’s the urge filmmakers or voyeurs get in that situation because if I was in their shoes, I’d be using the camera as a blunt weapon to escape instead of making sure I frame the monster right. I’m not the first to make an observation like that, nor will I certainly be the last. While “Malibu Horror Story” breaks the mold of found footage storytelling, it can’t help but rely on tropes to get us from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’. “Malibu Horror Story” doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it manages to add a few neat spokes to it.

Film Review: “Uncle Peckerhead”

Starring: Chet Siegel, Ruby McCollister and Jeff Riddle
Directed by: Matthew John Lawrence
Rated: Not Yet Rated
Running Time: 96 minutes
Epic Pictures

Punk rock and horror just work. Both are angry, fast, short, simple and to the point. From “Surf Nazis Must Die” to “Return of the Living Dead,” there’s a lot of great elements at play anytime you get punk rockers and horror tropes mixed up. Contemporarily speaking, there isn’t much left in the proverbial tank, outside of “Green Room,” a film that I was in the minority on. But “Uncle Peckerhead” could serve as a potential rejuvenation for blast beat punk rock soundtracks laid over a gory mess.

When we meet the band Duh, made up of Judy (Siegel), Mel (McCollister) and Max (Riddle), they’re down on their luck. The trio’s touring van is repossessed, coming immediately after Judy secures several shows on a statewide tour. In a desperation move, the band begins plastering signs everywhere, hoping someone will let them rent a van for their tour. That’s when they meet Peck (David H. Littleton). Peck agrees to the van deal, but he has some stipulations. He gets to drive and be the band’s roadie. Out of options, the band agrees, even though something isn’t quite right with Peck. It’s only after their first gig on tour that they learn Peck is a flesh eating monster, with pale skin and yellow teeth, for about a dozen minutes when the clock strikes midnight.

The monster that Peck becomes isn’t scary, nor is it supposed to be. If the opening moments aren’t a clue, “Uncle Peckerhead” is a comedy-horror. My favorite kind of genre because it’s an excuse for gore and sometimes childish comedy. I mentioned “Surf Nazis Must Die” earlier because the film has a quaint Troma charm to it. If you had told me “Uncle Peckerhead” was a Troma film, I wouldn’t be surprised because it’s in the film’s DNA. Everything is cheap, but the cast dives so far into that content, that their line delivery is admirable, no matter how bad the dialogue is. The comedic timing is hit and miss, but when it hits, it’s nearly pitch perfect. So if uncomfortable situational humor and gore don’t tickle your funny bone, you should probably just avoid horror, and Troma films, altogether.

The main conflict that develops throughout this off-the-beaten path road trip film is between Judy and Peck. While Judy has her eyes set on becoming successful (which in the punk world, isn’t that successful), she has one eye on Peck. While her bandmates seem content with Peck’s blood lust, especially after he devours some metalhead bullies, Judy is understandably concerned that a trashy older man devours human flesh at night. Over time though, she begins to admire Peck because of the way he supports the band and its members. You could call him a hillbilly with a heart of gold.

I probably enjoyed “Uncle Peckerhead” more than most low-budget horror because it recognizes what it is, and doesn’t try to be different. Surprisingly by the film’s end, “Uncle Peckerhead” made me feel nostalgic. Watching a bad punk band play to a couple dozen fans looking to mosh made me miss concerts in new COVID-19 world. Campy films like “Uncle Peckerhead” are best viewed with a crowd. Unfortunately I missed this film at Panic Fest, where it premiered, so it also made me miss the cinematic experience that films offer in a crowded, dark room with strangers. I especially admire these kinds of low-budget horror gore films because the passion at work on screen spills over into the crowd, and suddenly the screening becomes a party. “Uncle Peckerhead” should satisfy the sweet tooth of passionate horror fans and give them something to bob their head to.