Sunday, January 30, 2011

Movie Review: Splatter Farm (1987)

Writer/Director:
John Polonia

Mark Polonia

Todd Smith

Starring:
Todd Smith
John Polonia
Mark Polonia
Marion Costly

IMDB:
click here







Well, it's been a long time since I posted here. I've been drifting off from the obscure movies kick for a while and, resultantly, have had little to review or write about. Then, just recently, I discovered in my possession a DVD that I had forgotten I even owned, a film with the title Feeders. I stuck in on (a rash act, in retrospect, as it could have been a jazz-movie about human cottage cheese mounds and their psychological gaolers; gladly it was not). The flick, directed by twin brothers Mark and John Polonoia, served to remind me of two things: firstly, how much I love bizarre zero-budget horror (often for the wrong reasons), and secondly, that Battlefield Earth really isn't the most hilariously inept sci-fi movie ever made. Thus, I decided it was time for me to resurrect this blog, and I intend to start off with a short series on Polonia Brothers' films.

Actually, "Polonia Brothers films" is a potentially misleading turn of phrase. Polonia Brothers videos is a far more accurate description of what we will be dealing with here. A couple of the flicks reviewed so far on this blog had cinema releases in their time, while most went straight-to-video. These will be the first movies I cover that not only ended up on videocassette, but were actually shot on it. Presumably, at least in the case of the first film we will review, the primary recording equipment used was the family camcorder. We're done scraping the barrel, folks. You might say we're now hacking at the wood.

But that would be harsh. The Polonia Brothers have contributed much to the world of homebrew filmmaking (something that will be covered in a later article) and their product has always sought to entertain above all else.

With this in mind, it's time to delve into the first review. Setting aside Feeders for the next review, allow me take you back to where it all began: back to 1987, when a teenaged Mark and John Polonia drove into the countryside with a camcorder and a dream. A dream to make a movie of their own. A dream that would become... Splatter Farm.

Splatter Farm is a movie that does not mess around: it opens with a shot of an imbecile redneck disemboweling a female corpse in slow motion (yes, it's an obvious dummy - no young women were harmed in the making of this film, because... there were no young women in this film... presumably having been driven away by all the spots, geek specs and bad 80s moustaches on the set). He then severs one of her arms with what looks like a serrated bread knife, and proceeds to rub his crotch with her mangled hand. Some might call this a crass start, but if you think about it, it's actually pretty kind of the Brothers Polonia to signpost exactly what type of movie this is before the opening credits have rolled. I wouldn't be surprised if at least half of the viewing public switched off there-and-then, and tore back to the video shop with the tape held aloft and the word "refund" on their lips. As a film-making decision, it probably saved several thousand ruined evenings, and prevented at least five-or-six divorces, so hats off to the twins for that one.

But at Obscurity and Beyond we're made of sterner stuff - taking extreme gore, pervy bumpkins and bad facial hair in our stride (if not, you're on the wrong blog, kiddo!) - so we shall press onwards.

We are quickly introduced to pair of identically-bespectacled brothers, played by guess-who, driving into the countryside on their way to spend a relaxing week on their elderly aunt's farm. There's a bit of banter between them about whether or not the aunt once had the hots for one of the boys as a child, and a collective groan arises from the audience as they realise what fresh horrors await us further down the road. Oh yes, the Polonia Brothers are truly masters of foreshadowing.

The grubby feeling doesn't let up much when we actually meet the aunt. If you had predicted the overbearing, menacing old witch stereotype we're all so familiar with from horror films, then you'd be wrong. Instead, image a bizarre cross-pollination of Rosemary West and Herbert from Family Guy and you'll be in the right ballpark. Short on teeth and and high on squirm factor, Marion Costly plays the part disturbingly well (at least, I hope she is just "playing a part"); make no mistake, she is a truly terrible actress, but perfect for the role. In a genuine example of strength arising from limitation, even her incredibly wooden delivery often adds to the suggestion of an unhinged mind and (literal) skeletons in closets.

Also living and working on her farm, fresh from butchering an itinerant tree surgeon and thinning out the local equine population, is young Jeremy. Yes, the lemonade-guzzlin', corpse-lovin', white-trash nutbag from the pre-credits sequence. He is played by Todd Smith, one of the better actors in the film. It's true that he doesn't really exhibit much of a range: he mostly stands around sporting an expression somewhere between lonely vacancy and smouldering mania, but he sports it really, really well. So, if you're a casting agent on the lookout for a vacantly-smouldering lonely maniac, you could do a lot worse than Todd Smith. The twins, Joseph and Alan, take an immediate dislike to Jeremy, but are initially oblivious to the fact that he is actually a serial killing necrophile.

Eventually, after finding some human remains in the woods and noticing Jeremy brandishing a hammer while staring evilly at them for the fifteenth time, the penny drops and they try to escape. Things don't go to plan. What follows defies description, but includes the following, in no specific order: mutilation, torture, rohypnol, date rape, a fist up the butt, a stick of dynamite in a similar location, a character being buried alive, an exploding head, and a poop-smeared face. This all leads up to a surprising, genuinely unexpected (considering the less-than-brilliant writing chops behind it) twist ending that manages to bind all these events together in some semblance of a meaningful plot.

Right, let's get down to the nitty gritty:

Video looks like shit. I'm not being a cinema snob here, I'm not bad-mouthing the fancy digital 24fps progressive scan HD video camcorders and DSLRs that they shoot low budget movies on nowadays; I'm talking about that cruddy, analogue VHS-C Handicam you used to stick in your brat's tear-streaked face on birthdays, and is now lying unused at the back of your closet. Yeah, THAT kinda video. There's no point in beating around the bush: no matter how great your cinematographer, how expensive your lighting rig, or how big a budget you have (and the Polonia Brothers had none of these things), you can spot shot-on-tape footage a mile off and it looks crummy; all cheap and sterile and low-contrast-ratio. This movie is no exception to that rule. Bright backdrops become white blurs, dense foliage becomes a seething wall of fizzing noise. Ugh! If you are used to crisp HD visuals, you will not like this. I will say, however, that within the realm of bad shot-on-video 1980s horror films, Splatter Farm looks slightly better than average. This is not to suggest that the movie looks good in any respect, simply that there is much worse out there, and a lot of it. The brothers at least seem to be aware of the limitations of the medium, and play against them.

Locations are good, looking suitably grubby, seedy and low-rent (because they were grubby, seedy and low-rent). The direction is alright, insofar as we can usually tell what we are supposed to be looking at and can follow what is happening on the screen. The camera roves around the characters and locations, voyeuristically, creating a fair sense of unease. There is nothing particularly artful going on in the cinematography department, but it's functional and it works. Pacing is something that could have been tightened up somewhat; one of the boys seems to spend an age pondering over a rotting skull in the woods, before coming to the conclusion that it is indeed a rotting skull.

But, presumably, most people who watch a movie called Splatter Farm don't do so for poetic visuals and nuanced storytelling. You're probably asking how the gore stacks up. Well, the special effects are imaginative and enthusiastically executed, if not exactly convincing (you have to look past some pretty watery blood and stiff fx-dummies). Although, by my count, there are only five living humans shown on screen during the film, the boys manage to serve up a surprisingly varied smorgasbord of splatter from such a limited pool of victims. In this department at least, they did a damn good job.

Now, given how hard the filmmakers were clearly trying to push the viewers' disgust threshold, the film should be a tedious exercise in mean-spirited repulsiveness. But it's not, not quite. The youthful naivete of the filmmakers is apparent at all times, and this serves to lighten the mood considerably. Likewise, the darker moments stem not so much from the visual images of gore and mutilation, but from the candid, and quite inadvertent, glimpses the film offers into the minds of the two grubby teenage horror geeks behind it. Freud would have had a field day with Splatter Farm. So, the flick manages to be both endearingly innocent and disturbingly creepy at the same time, for much the same reasons. It's an oddly compelling paradox and almost makes the movie worth watching in its own right.

It is an entertaining film, but it will only appeal to a very, very narrow audience. If you've read my review and think "yuck - this is terrible, why would anyone want to watch a film like this?" then you will hate it. You are also 100% correct: it is ragingly terrible. Stay well away.

But if, based on the review, you think there is a chance Splatter Farm might be worth your time, then you almost certainly will enjoy it; it takes a certain kind of person to like a film like this. If I was to turn my back, shout "TROMA!" and turn around to see whether or not you were running away, that also would be a pretty good litmus test.


Splatter Farm was shot in 1986 and released in 1987 through Donna Michele (or Michelle) Productions, a super-obscure video distributor that advertised for new material in the back of horror magazines. According to Slasher Index, this outfit only ever released seven films over the course of its existence, of which this and Cannibal Campout (written, directed by and starring one Jon McBride, a name that will be popping up again in the next review) were the two most successful. Information on this company is hard to come by, but it appears that Donna Michele Productions operated primarily on a mail-order basis, although it also seems that Splatter Farm did appear on the shelves of a few "mom and pop" video rental stores in the US, so there might have been some limited retail distribution too.

Actually, something I have just noticed now: the screen-grabs on the Splatter Farm video case are not from the actual movie, and feature characters and situations not shown in the film. This in itself is not so strange - a lot of exploitation flicks have been marketed using trailers and posters that are virtually unconnected and often totally misleading (check out this hilariously irrelevant trailer for The Last House on Dead End Street) - but such material is usually either pieced together from pre-production publicity shots or mocked-up by the distributors without the permission or input of the production team. What's weird here is that while at least one of the Polonia Brothers does appear in a couple of the shots, he is locked in a cage being menaced by an actor wearing the same outfit as Jeremy in the film, yet is noticably older and has a receding hairline that Jeremy doesn't. On the front cover, standing alongside the Jeremy-imposter, there is a short female wearing a Stetson and jeans who is most assuredly not Marion Costly, and there is also a third shot featuring both of these characters harassing one of the Polonias on the hood of a car which I certainly don't remember seeing. Maybe it was decided by the brothers that they wouldn't submit grainy screencaps from the film itself, but instead shoot their own promo materials on a 35mm stills camera, but could not get a hold of the original actors. Either that, or maybe they're grabbed from some unknown, lost Polonia Brothers film. Who knows? Answers on a postcard, please.

Anyway, Donna Michele released their last film (Attack of the Killer Refrigerator) in 1990 and presumably ceased to exist soon thereafter. Thanks to the death of the distributor and the very limited number of tapes produced, copies of Splatter Farm became quite a rarity in the horror video underground of the 1990s and early 2000s. Most people who managed to see it during this period did so on second or third generation bootleg copies and, given that the film was far from eye candy in the first place, it must have been a pretty ugly experience.

Probably in reaction to this, the Polonia Brothers re-released Splatter Farm on DVD in 2007 through Camp Motion Pictures in a remastered special edition. Yes: remastered, and yes: this is the version I have just reviewed - it still looks like crap. Well, I guess there is only so much you can do to tart up awful 1980s video footage, so that's no big surprise.

What is surprising is that a) they're still using shots of those same weird impostors on the artwork, including some shots that didn't appear on the old boxart, and b) the movie has been extensively re-edited from its original form. In fact, around ten minutes are missing from the running time.

Before you ask, the strange scenes shown on the box are not among the chopped footage, I checked. By comparing notes with a friend in the US (Billy A. Anderson) who had access to a copy of the original VHS, I've found that in addition to a few trims to improve the editing, the majority of missing time boils down to the exclusion of two key scenes:

Firstly, there was a nightmare sequence in the video version, in which one of the brothers excretes several major organs. This was immediately preceded by the character's announcement that he was going to "take a shit", which remains in the re-edited DVD. Secondly, the "buried alive" scene was originally much, much longer, with the camera lingering for the entire burial, during which one brother is actually buried alive in the cold ground, showcasing some immense dedication and bravery on the part of the young actor/co-director (I couldn't tell you which one, though). Since this was the most genuinely, subtly chilling scene in the movie, and obviously the most gruellingly difficult shot to film, it does seem odd that the Polonia Brothers would choose to excise it all these years later. The scene did feature the movie's only glimpse of frontal nudity, and this alongside the fact that society is probably much more aware and alert to the exploitation of minors now than it was in 1986 (the brothers were only 17 at the time of filming), may in fact be the reason for the cut. That would be understandable. However, it seems bizarre that it would result in this scene being chopped while the sexual battery scene remains intact. Weird. Perhaps the brothers themselves have explained this somewhere, but I couldn't find anything on it.

Anyway, since I've not seen the original version, I can't really say whether these cuts contribute or detract from the movie.

If you want to see Splatter Farm, Amazon is your friend. $6.88 (at time of writing) really isn't too bad a deal, and makes the movie worth taking a chance on even if you're still undecided. Just don't break my balls if you hate it, okay? The original videotape version remains very difficult to find, and I'm told you can expect to pay anywhere between $50 - $200 a pop on the rare occasion that one shows up on eBay. Is it worth it?

Nah.

Well, that was Splatter Farm. I'll be back soon-ish with the next instalment in my Polonia Brothers series. Until then, take care and keep dancing naked in the hills!

5 comments:

  1. Obscure, micro budget splatter films are my drug. I have no idea what is so disturbed about me to have such a compulsion, but oh well.
    Ahhh, I love this review. Looks like a good time, grabbing it now. Can't wait for your next Polonia review!

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  2. @ReactorGirl: I think, for me, its just that I love the "DIY" aspect of all these zero budget movies. We've all seen a thousand Hollywood flicks, but it's somehow more interesting to see amateur, ordinary, everyday Joes express the darker side of their psyche in film. There's something more genuine and honest about it. It's not filtered through the homogenizing force of film-school training, or processed through the Hollywood machine. It's raw and in-your-face and somehow feels more "real" than big budget movies (even though the acting and effects are usually fake as fuck).

    Also, I don't know about you, but I get a kick out of watching something that I know is rare and obscure, and that I am one of a select few to ever see it. Know what I mean?

    Anyway, thanks for posting, I hope you have fun with the movie. :)

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  3. You can get a DVD of the original cut from Todd Michael Smith, who plays the psycho, and he'll sign it for you too! The newer cut is tightened up a bit, but is definitely missing some of the insanity that made the original so - well, what it is, which is awesome.
    The dream sequence in the original cut was later removed because it's really from another, earlier film: Hallucinations. That can now be seen as an 'extra' on a much later film: Splatter Beach. I don't much care for Splatter Beach, but Hallucinations is fantastic.
    Yes, I am a bit of a Polonia Brothers expert, but no, I am not in any of their films (sadly).

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    Replies
    1. Where can Todd Michael Smith be contacted for the original cut of "Splatter Farm"?

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  4. I have seen Hallucinations and it is indeed a surprisingly good movie! Not sure what happened between the Polonias and Todd Smith, but judging by the fact that he hasn't appeared in any of their movies since Saurians (a small role) and their apparent reticence to mention him (they talk about making Splatter Farm with an unnamed "high school friend" in more recent interviews), I get the sense that there was some kind of falling out there. Maybe it has something to do with the more "adult" material he went on to work in. Maybe I'm way off.

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