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Entries in IDS Rising [2012] (1)

Sunday
Jan272013

IDS Rising (2012)

Put Your Sister to the Test

All I really gotta do is live and die, but I'm in a hurry and don't know why.

--Alabama

In the last four years, Cory Udler has written, directed, edited, and released four feature-length independent movies and one vignette for an upcoming horror anthology.* That's a feat anyone should be proud of, and exhausted by, so it's no surprise he's taking off 2013 to get his life back. When he blazes back onto the scene someday, I hope it's with a better movie than his latest, IDS Rising. I respect the hell out of Cory, but he's one of the most frustrating filmmakers I know.

IDSR, the third chapter in his Incest Death Squad trilogy, picks up during the final moments of part two: serial-killer siblings Jeb and Amber Wayne (Greg Johnson and Carmela Wiese) and former journalist-turned-serial-killer Aaron Burg (Tom Lodewyck) die after a tense Mexican stand-off that results in, among other things, Aaron's heart being ripped out of his chest. We soon learn that Amber is still clinging to life, and the film unfolds as a Christmas Carol-style journey through her past.

As victims, allies, and even the Devil himself (Blade Braxton) kick Amber down memory lane, we're treated to several Usual Suspects-style revelations about characters and situations from the previous films that we only thought we knew. Udler's screenplay retains the fire that makes all his stuff worthwhile. Look past the title and gruesome subject matter, and you'll find rich characters that use sex and violence to avoid coping with their frailty. Particularly in IDS Rising, Udler takes all of his creations to task for the crutches that ultimately led to their collective demise--from a warped faith in God to weakness in the face of temptation. The damage is so complete in part three that no one is recognizable as the version of themselves from the first movie.

This time around, though, the production seems anxious, as if Udler needed to get the film out of his system before taking a break. Gone is the whiz-bang joy of watching an auteur squeeze blood from a nothing budget. Instead, we're left with a movie heavy on close-ups and light on invention. IDS2 kept me wondering not only how Udler had pulled off such faithful, stylistic homages to Rob Zombie films, but also where he would take his visuals next. IDS Rising is conspicuous in its locations' plainness, especially when portraying supernatural space.

When watching a scene that takes place in Hell, for example, I should be focused on what the characters are doing, rather than wondering whether or not the filmmakers paid to shoot in a high school boiler room, or snuck in, gonzo-style, during an away game. Likewise, the opening scene between Amber and Aaron, as compelling as it is to listen to, would have been much better served by a black-box-theatre-style backdrop than the dimly lit suburban apartment in which it was clearly filmed. If I dig really deep, I could probably justify both of these creative decisions, but in a movie as weird and well-thought-out as this, story-wise, I expect a far more ambitious execution.

Case in point, there's a horrific but sickly funny scene in which Jeb, at the behest of his demented father Job (Michael Katzenberger), beats his mother to death with a shovel (she's played with delirious, kept-woman denial by Heather Renken). Set in a wide open field to an upbeat, old-timey radio song, the glee with which Jeb goes about his business is at once reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs and American Psycho. As a character, he's deeply conflicted: only a few scenes before, he'd (yikes) had sex with his mother--now he was "doing the Lord's work" by bludgeoning a helpless woman who'd been tied to a chair.

In this instance, Udler's imagination makes his limited resources wildly interesting. Instead of shooting another dank-basement scene, he chooses to turn what could have just been an establishing-shot location into a set piece that recalls the brazenness of IDS2 and the stylistic strangeness of his previous film, Mediatrix. That movie also had its problems, but I still rank it slightly above this one--thanks largely to Udler's MVP, Lodewyck, and his gutsy co-star, Paula Duerksen.

Contrast that pairing with Loedwyck and Wiese here. She's either one of the best or least impressive actresses I've ever seen. Her line delivery is so flat and un-actorly that I can't believe she's actually the star of three motion pictures. I really want to give her the benefit of the doubt, mostly because the non-verbal aspects of her performance are really something. It could be that she's just really good at playing a horny, brain-dead hick, but my litmus test for recommending independent films has changed a bit over the years--meaning I can no longer justify giving an actor a pass when there's so little evidence to justify it.

Fortunately, she has plenty of solid support. Katzenberger, whom I was unkind to in my Mediatrix review, does very well here. He plays a great, showy sleazebag and religious hypocrite (one of Udler's favorite thematic muses), providing the perfect template for Jeb and Amber's screwy behavior. Melissa Jo Murphy also pops up as Aaron's deceased fiancée, Andrea--another fine example of a character whose tragic evolution is the trilogy's selling point.** The hightlight of IDSR, though, is Matt Kenyon, a newcomer with a major spoiler of a role. All I'll say is that you'll find no greater contrast to Wiese's questionable talents than the scene in which she comes up against a kid who effortlessly sells the hell out of his bit part.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I'm thanked in IDS Rising's end credits. Cory and I have maintained an infrequent correspondence ever since I began reviewing his movies. I hope I'm not betraying any confidence by saying that at various points in IDSR's production, he said he was making a near-critic-proof movie, one strictly for the fans. I appreciate that passion, that determination, but I question the wisdom of spending hard-earned money and countless hours on a picture whose aesthetics alone will likely drive off anyone who isn't already on-board with the series.

In my opinion, those who dismiss the Incest Death Squad movies, sight-unseen, are missing out. But in Udler's rush to find closure with these characters, he's created a movie that almost feels embarrassed limping across the finish line. I might be in the minority of fans for whom he made this movie, but I don't come to these pictures for blood and boobs. I come to be entertained (and even moved) by a filmmaker who could take on any of the so-called big-league genre directors if given half a chance, a substantial budget, and CAA's Rolodex. Still, it's hard to convert newcomers, let alone the people who could make big things happen for Udler and his crew, when the lead actress is a dud and the blood looks like strawberry syrup.

The antidote to bad horror movies and shitty remakes of great ones is a combination of vision, guts, and the ability to tell a compelling story. Udler has all of those things, but he'll never make it out of Wisconsin by shooting himself in the foot like this. Instead of rushing to deliver a picture every year, he might try making one every three years. With a greater budget, expanded resources, and enough time to hammer the kinks out of material that showcases his full potential as an artist, there would be no stopping him from conquering Hollywood. Knowing Cory, that's the last place he'd want to work, but they desperately need him out there.

Goddammit, so do we.

*Later this year, he'll put the finishing touches on Ed Gein, D.D.S., which will debut as part of Hole in the Wall.

**It's too bad she was tucked away behind really cheap-looking "skin mask" makeup. One of the series' constant pitfalls is the filmmakers' lack of investment in half-way convincing violence. With the exception of Aaron's open chest wound and veiny face, IDS Rising continues a puzzling tradition of shoddy gore in a down-and-dirty murder series.