Film fest terrors 

A double-shot of Montana-made horror

With a short track record, a nebulous mission (“the celebration of alternative vision and cultivation of independent, provocative, and experimental filmmaking”), and a full two-dozen entries slated for this year’s lineup, it’s hard to draw a bead on the fledgling Montana Independent Film Festival (see Scope for more details on the festival and its organizers). And that elusiveness may be one of its founding principles.

But since MTIFF is particularly interested in films shot in and around the state, and since the horror genre is provocation-friendly, cracking open a couple of low-budget horror flicks shot principally in Montana seems as good a taste-getter as anything.

Dead Noon is a $4,000 labor of love from Blue Collar Flicks, headed by Andrew Wiest of Kalispell. Shot in Kalispell and in Wiest’s hometown of Cody, Wyo., Dead Noon is part comedy, part horror and nearly 100 percent kitsch. It tracks the story of Frank, an Old West gunslinger, who deals with the Devil to get back on terra firma where he can avenge his wrongful death on the ancestors of a sleepy Western town.

Before I wade into Dead Noon, you should know that I’m not a huge fan of kitsch, particularly when it comes to the self-referential variety. I know there is a considerable movie fan base out there that revels in the resurrection of ’70s grindhouse flicks, reconstructed with a knowing, postmodern wink to contemporary audiences. I am not among them.

So to be honest, it’s hard for me to generate much in the way of positive spin for Dead Noon. I certainly respect and admire Wiest for his gumption and for what I can only assume is a faithful adherence to his vision, but beyond that I have to say that watching this movie was a fairly painful process.

There is a wide array of special effects in Dead Noon, most involving fire, buckets of blood and (barely) 3-D demon skeletons. Given the meager budget, one could praise the effects for thriftiness and sheer quantity. On the other hand, one could question the reasoning behind a skeletal death toll rivaled only by Pirates of the Caribbean—especially when the skeletons in question have the superimposed veneer of a badly Photoshopped picture (again, that might be part of the point—but if it is, I’m not feeling it).

Wiest is given to showing off multiple camera angles in any given scene, but very few of them reveal or enhance the characters or plotlines. Frank’s impending approach in most scenes is demonstrated by the tired, villain-point-of-view construct. The score is over the top, and predictably so: hard rock during chase scenes, soft-core swanky during the obligatory shower scene, revved-up bluegrass for a bunch of rednecks drinking hooch and shooting guns. The actors, who may or may not be gifted, seem to have been given the green light for camp, and so deliver it time and time again. And most of all, the story itself is as thin and artificially imposed as the aforementioned hapless skeletons.

But to show you what I know, Dead Noon has been picked up by Lionsgate, a film production and distribution company, which plans to target the flick at cable television and DVD audiences in early 2009. According to Wiest, the final version of Dead Noon will look quite different than his version, with a completely new score and at least 15 minutes of fresh content shot with actor Kane Hodder (Jason Vorhees of Friday the 13th fame), so he’s happy that folks at MTIFF will see the original director’s cut.

Paper Dolls, on the other hand, is a taut, psychological thriller that deftly revolves around a very different mythology of the West—that of Bigfoot. Paper Dolls is the product of Badfritter Films, a group of three Whitefish High School buddies—Adam Pitman, Adam Stilwell and David Blair—all now in their late 20s. After a strong freshman effort—a $500 ghost story that saw no public distribution—the group garnered enough financial and professional assistance to produce a shockingly good inaugural feature.

By working within their technical limits and keeping both the story and dialogue tight, the writing and directing team of Blair and Pitman hardly ever leak their relative inexperience. Indeed, they’ve crafted a number of scenes in a manner that would challenge many far more seasoned pros. For example, the reveal of the road-trip vehicle, in all its station-wagoned glory, is fantastic, as is a travel montage built on a series of short time-lapses and jump-cuts. And the aftermath of one of the most gripping moments in the movie—an emotional reaction drawn to perfection and set to a spare song and the complete absence of natural sound—should be required study for film school students everywhere.

The acting performances in Paper Dolls are nearly uniformly superb, highlighted by Pitman’s charismatic and nuanced turn as the lead. This is sharp, gripping filmmaking by any standard, and the “Made in Montana” sticker it earned makes it even sweeter.

Paper Dolls screens at the Wilma Theatre as part of the Montana Independent Film Festival Saturday, Sept. 20, in the 7 PM block, with Dead Noon following the same night in the 9:30 block.
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