”Hi Jeremy, I'd be glad to get you one as soon as they are available in the next few weeks- the production of the DVDs is running behind. Just get me your mailing info and I'll have a screener out to you ASAP. Thanks for the interest- I look forward to the review- I promise it's as bad as you've heard!”
Review Date: October 8, 2008
Released by: Winterbeast Entertainment Group
Release date: 2/27/2008
Region 0, NTSC
– E-mail to me from Winterbeast
director Chris Thiess
Strange things are happening in the quaint little New England town of Newbury. People are disappearing on Chikura Mountain, a sinister ridge overlooking the area that has always been the focus of strange rumors about the supernatural and other evil happenings. Having just taken up his post as chief forest ranger for the area, Sergeant Bill Whitman (Tim R. Morgan
) and his deputy Stillman (Mike Magri
) are perplexed when one of their fellow rangers disappears while putting up trail marker signs. What happened to him? Did he just get lost, or was there some kind of foul play?
Although the area itself is popular with tourists, the only establishment on the mountain itself is the Wild Goose Lodge, run by an eccentric local businessman named Dave Sheldon (Bob Harlow
). Whitman goes to the lodge to ask Sheldon to keep an eye out for the missing ranger, but finds him strangely (albeit politely) uncooperative. But when the missing ranger doesn’t show up, and several hikers disappear, Whitman knows something bizarre is starting to happen.
Enlisting the help of local gift shop owner Charlie Perkins (Charles Majka
), Whitman starts investigating the Native American legends surrounding the mountain. As he repeatedly tries to seek help from Dave Sheldon again, Whitman encounters more and more hostility from him. The lodge owner knows something about what is going on, and it’s up to Whitman to get the truth out of him before the entire town is swallowed up by the evil!
Before we even discuss Winterbeast
, I have a little story to tell you relating to the independent film experience. For over a year after I graduated college I found myself working the front desk at a grand old hotel in the city of Portland, Maine. The hotel had been built before the Great Depression and was seeped in history and atmosphere (it was also decaying and falling apart thanks to owners who didn’t want to invest any money in the place). Underneath it was a creepy, eerie, dungeon-like basement that stretched on forever in every direction, and even had doors that could take you into the basements of adjacent apartment buildings and businesses. Visually it was the perfect location for a horror tale, and in March of 2007 two co-workers and I descended into it with a digital video camera to film a ghost story. Almost immediately, it became my own personal Hearts of Darkness
The very first night of shooting, my lead actor (also the hotel’s security guard) called out on me at the last minute because a family member was in the hospital. We decided to reschedule the first night of shooting for a week later – and he called out on me again at the last minute, this time because he was sick. The scenes with him that I had planned to shoot that night were of him walking around the basement by himself, and so, unwilling to delay the production any further, I gave them all to his co-star, a fellow front desk worker. This happened several more times in the coming weeks, and this security guard found himself starting to be written out of the script, because every time he canceled I would simply shoot his scenes using his co-star. I wanted to replace him, but because we were shooting in a strict employees-only area, I had to use someone who worked for the company and he was the only one willing to do it.
As long and tortuous a process as this was (we were over a month into the production, shooting several nights a week after our shifts ended, before this extremely unreliable actor even completed one scene), there was much more going on. My shifts always ended at eleven o’clock at night, and shooting until two or three in the morning killed me. The basement itself was a wonderful location to have on camera, but not a wonderful location to shoot in. The air was dank and filled with mold, and there were noxious fumes from the hotel’s machinery that filled the air. After just a few hours we would start to feel sick and cranky. And then there was the temperature, with extremes of heat and cold that varied depending on what room you went into.
We finally wrapped production at the beginning of June, but that was not the end of the story. The basement had been so noisy that early on we realized we weren’t going to get any usable live audio, so we decided to film it the same way the Italians do it, with a low quality “scratch” audio track that is scrapped after all the actors re-dub their lines. In an odd reversal of roles, my unreliable actor showed up for every recording session and finished his part, while my front desk co-worker, who had been extremely reliable, recorded half of his lines and then moved to Los Angeles without returning my calls! After re-establishing contact with him I took a vacation to L.A. where we recorded the rest of his lines in the same studio where Green Day recorded Time of Your Life
I’m relating this story to you not to promote my work (which is called The Basement
and happens to be up on YouTube), but to give a primer on the independent movie experience for those of you who have never tried to make anything. It’s an understanding that is essential to understanding Winterbeast
. I watch a lot of DVD special features, and like everybody else I read Fangoria
and the other genre magazines when I get the time. Over the years I’ve encountered a lot of people, usually makers of ultra low budget fare, waxing on and on about how people outside of Hollywood out in the real world are getting their friends together and shooting low budget movies that are every bit as good as Hollywood films for a fraction of the cost.
Bullshit. Yes, there are low budget filmmakers out there with video cameras who are making worthwhile movies on ultra low budgets, and their productions deserve to be seen and supported. We’ve reviewed quite a few of them on this site. But to claim that even the best of these movies are superior to big Hollywood productions is a gross exaggeration. Yes, Hollywood makes its share of crappy movies, but if you look at how many bad studio movies are out there in proportion to the good or decent ones, and then find what that proportion is with the micro-budgeted, shot-on-video flicks, I’m willing to bet that Hollywood has far fewer “duds” in proportion to output than the micro-budget indies. Hollywood can afford fancy special effects, high-tech cameras and all sorts of gizmos that put the indies to shame – but that’s not what makes the difference. The difference is that in Hollywood people are professionals who do it for a living. They’re paid well, they belong to unions and they have health benefits. When the day is over, they are able to go home and deal with their finances, their family and their personal issues.
Those of us trying to make micro-budgeted films outside of Hollywood often don’t have those luxuries. What are we doing? We’re working two jobs because we can’t afford to put gas in our cars. We’re freaking out because we have an expensive prescription and can’t afford health insurance. During the time we’re not working we have to deal with all manners of everyday problems and find time to spend with our spouses, significant others and friends. Trying to make a movie when you have all those commitments in your life is even harder than it sounds. On a Hollywood production, the behavior of my hotel security guard turned actor would have never been tolerated unless he was a huge star who could not be contractually replaced. Anyone else acting in such a way would have been handed their walking papers. And in Los Angeles there’s never any shortage of people willing to stand up and work a job just vacated.
Which brings us, finally, to Winterbeast
. In the filmmakers who created this work I have found several kindred souls, men who suffered through the same difficulties and indignities as I did. Much of what happened to me on The Basement
they went through as well, yet they kept plugging away and finished their movie. And they have no illusions about their work. It’s a terrible movie, and they know it’s terrible. But their perseverance earns them a passing grade from this reviewer.
Filmed on a shoestring budget in the 1980’s (but not released until 1991 when it showed up on VHS), Winterbeast
is hard to watch but impossible to hate. From every standpoint of filmmaking, both technical and artistic, the film is horribly, almost impossibly bad. The cinematography is murky, the editing is choppy, the acting is amateurish, the story is almost impossible to follow and the all-around production values are horrible. Much of the live dialogue doesn’t even match the lip movements of the actors thanks to the filmmakers breaking their crystal sync unit, a device necessary for keeping picture and sound together. The pacing is uneven but mostly slow, and the continuity is so erratic that scenes will shift from fall foliage to summertime foliage to winter. Aside from some decent stop motion monsters (which are never effectively integrated with the live action) the filmmakers do not even show the faintest grasp of the film arts. The final product was born out of frustration, incompetence and bad luck, but also out of perseverance.
But although Winterbeast
may not be good, it’s impossible to dislike. The movie has a strange dual personality to it. It embodies everything that can go wrong with a production like this, but it also perfectly captures the independent film spirit that occasionally allows these productions to break out. There is just something so earnest, so honest about the efforts of the filmmakers. I’ve watched an incalculable number of bad movies in my life, bad movies of all types from technically well-made but idiotic big budget Hollywood films to pathetically low budget regional movies. Too often these movies are made by cynics, people who assume that audiences will just go to any old movie if they sell it right, no matter how bad. And no matter how well disguised, the contempt these men hold for their audience usually shines through, and it’s insulting. But that never happens with Winterbeast
. It is truly the product of dedicated independents, struggling to make something good. They failed miserably, but their attempt still deserves applause.
is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and the film elements it was transferred from like they’ve keen stuffed in somebody’s attic or closet for the past fifteen years. Colors are slightly faded most of the time but passable, and clarity and sharpness are rarely more than average. Much of the film is covered in specks, scratches and vertical lines. It’s a watchable presentation, but don’t expect a Criterion or Synapse-like restoration.
The film is presented in Dolby 2.0 Mono and sounds mediocre. There are a lot of noticeable audio drop-outs and a lot of hissing and distortion on the soundtrack, although dialogue is surprisingly easy to understand most of the time.
This self-produced DVD kicks off with a filmmaker commentary featuring director Chris Thiess, producer and editor Mark Frizzell, and director of photography Craig Mathieson. Although the audio quality of the recording leaves something to be desired and the conversation is sometimes hard to follow this is still a largely entertaining and informative discussion of the film's incredibly convoluted and drawn out production. The three men are not above laughing at their own misfired work and spend a lot of time discussing the innumerable continuity errors and alternate scenes and plot ideas that were scrapped.
Following up the commentary is a making-of featurette with Chris Thiess, Mark Frizzell and Charles Majka. Thiess and Frizzell get most of the screen time together, where they give a basic overview of how the project got started and what went wrong, resulting in the film’s eventual home video infamy. The featurette is generously provided with production photographs, behind-the-scenes footage and clips of deleted and alternate scenes. My favorite part was the anecdote told by Thiess of how on the very first day of filming he tried to choke a crew member in a fit of rage!
Thirteen minutes of deleted scenes are next included, some fully or partially silent. From the commentary and the featurette it sounds as if the story was changed quite a number of times, and these bits of footage provide clues to the alternate directions other drafts of the story tried to take. Some of the scenes look like they were wholly or partially taken from tape sources, and the overall quality varies.
The next supplement is dubbed the “soap opera” version of Winterbeast
, presumably because it visually resembles the soap operas of the 70’s and 80’s that were shot on low quality video. Later in the film’s production a TV crew was hired for several days of shooting on video, although Frizzell and Thiess were ultimately unhappy with the visual look of the format and went back to film. Many of the scenes that are shown do not have equivalent versions in the finished film, giving us yet another look at alternate plot ideas explored. The ultimate irony of them is that even though 16mm film may have been superior to the video format used for this shoot, time has been so unkind to the movie that these scenes now look better than it probably ever will.
The package is rounded out by a wonderful and lengthy still gallery, and a short section of commentary by composer Michael Perilstein, where he promotes the upcoming soundtrack CD of the film.
is not a classic. It’s not even a mediocre movie. It’s a terrible movie. But I can’t help but be enamored by the enthusiasm of this little production and it’s hilariously bad acting, writing and production values. This DVD will not win any awards for audio/visual restoration, but it does give the movie a watchable presentation. Unfortunately the disc doesn’t seem to be getting much distribution (so far I’ve only seen it in one store), but please go online and support this release by buying a copy.
Movie – D+
Image Quality – C
Sound – C-
Supplements – A-
- Running Time – 1 hour 17 minutes
- Not rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English 2.0 Mono
- Audio commentary
- Making-of featurette
- Deleted scenes
- “Soap Opera” version
- Composer commentary
- Still gallery