I’ve been running captainhowdy.com since the late 90s. From time to time I’ve been tempted to post things not-related to The Exorcist, things I’ve wanted to share that I thought Exorcist fans might be interested in.
Today will be the first day I actually do post something not related to The Exorcist. I’m posting this because it deserves your attention and captainhowdy.com can finally give back to those who have provided for it for so long.
Those of you who have been with captainhowdy.com for many years will recognize the name Erik Kristopher Myers. In the mid 2000s Erik provided some fantastic insights into Exorcist III: Legion (since removed in anticipation for his book on the subject!) and was thoroughly involved in topics on our discussion forums. Erik also scooped an exclusive interview with director Paul Schrader ahead of his Exorcist prequel Dominion: A Prequel To The Exorcist being released. A friendship was formed between he and I, and the community as a whole started to blossom. Now, Erik, our brother, has written and directed his first independent feature film: Roulette.
Another brother, fellow contributor and artist extraordinaire, is Mike Garrett. He has taken the time to write this exclusive review of Roulette and share his thoughts.
So comes a review of a new feature film from the mind of a thorough, dedicated and brilliant Exorcist fan. I hope you’ll all take the time to not only read the review below, but also check out the film and support those who have supported this Exorcist site for so many years.
Jason ‘Captain Howdy’.
written and directed by Erik Kristopher Myers
Baltimore-based Erik Kristopher Myers achieved the exceedingly difficult in these arduous, uncertain financial times. His inaugural, $20,000 feature film Roulette plays like $2,000,000, yet stands as one of those refreshing independent films serving a healthy meal of substance to its audience. But that’s what you do when your life’s aspiration is to save film studios’ money, earning an honest living as a writer-director. With psychological drama Roulette now out of his hands and winning the awards (i.e. World Music & Independent Film Festival in Washington, D.C., this past August), steadfast tin soldier Myers marches on, Billy Jack-style, and I personally can’t wait to see what’s around the mountain.
The affable, articulate, hands-on film school grad is a rising name in independent filmmaking and a great storyteller and writer in general, having served, incidentally, as Editor-In-Chief at BloodyNews.com, the defunct horror-news website which one of his idols, Paul Schrader, in 2005 chose above all others to feed insights and exclusive content for his buried Exorcist prequel film, Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist, months in advance of its limited release against Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. Schrader granted Myers the first-ever exclusive interview and review for the film; it was BloodyNews’ finest moment.
Years later, forsaking the glitz, glamor and gnashing of teeth of basic survival in Hollywoodland, Myers remained productive on his native east coast, getting his first cinematic feature made on his own terms with his own loyal and talented cast and crew of varying experience, and thanks also to friends and family, and certainly the example of Paul Schrader et al. indie auteur rebels of decades past.
Artistically, above all else, Myers is in the filmmaking game to win it, ever enduring the path of most resistance, having legendarily, painstakingly reshot to better effect a major portion of Roulette after one actress pulled a mutinous, nightmarish stunt and had to be replaced lest the film die, incomplete. It’s no surprise, then, the budding filmmaker previously took home a Student Festival award at Towson for a documentary, prior to seeing Roulette get the awards for Best Director, Best Actor (Will Haza) and Best Actress (Ali Lukowski) at the 2011 World Music & Independent Film Festival this past August.
Pre-[r]amble aside, let’s get into the film itself, shall we?
First, the bad: N/A. Nothing of the sort made the final cut, although it’s no secret the film is a tad lengthy. Myers and co. present a psychological odyssey fixed in the œsuicide room, a proverbial dank chamber where the three peers’ mutual interrogation — what first begins as a drinking game — gradually ignites, illuminating their shattered, broken lives to one another and to we the audience, witnesses to every increasingly dreadful minute of what soon becomes a game of Russian roulette.
Fortunately such an emotional roller-coaster taking this captive and willing audience member — Yours Truly — through all those bleak, modern realities, had the courage to show the ramifications of various decisions made. The characters were believable, people we could very easily know in our own lives, and Myers’ personal style in writing and directing them comes through, established crystal-clear as I’d never seen in his work before. Of course, this was very much a thesis project for him, and boy did he draw from what he knew, even stylistically in terms of horror cinema.
By most accounts, the most visceral scene, the heart-wrenching bathroom abortion, succeeds precisely as word-of-mouth has forebodingly advertised, making Sam Mendes‘ Revolutionary Road‘s similar climax pale in comparison and really not even register. That single scene, and Roulette as a whole, drain one’s mind, body and soul for all the right reasons, and we come to actually care about the tragic characters even more so at their worst. Poor Sunny in particular, and even her innocent baby — virtually anonymous — we, devastated, can’t help but care and cringe accordingly. Mendes’ film, glamorous as it is, is merely hollow and probably won’t be so well remembered; its shocking parent-caused abortion scene pales to Myers’ œThe Bathroom Scene, as it’s called, whispered. The scene would make William Friedkin proud and/or jealous of Myers; as such, Regan’s shocking crucifix-masturbation scene in The Exorcist has been demoted. Roulette, because of that one scene which sort of punctuates the film, it now wears the crown in terms of real-world, psychological horror; it benefits from the horrifically surreal ending, awful as it was/is to behold. It’s not for the squeamish. Not for the squeamish.
Characters-wise, the film rests on three main ones, adults in their late-20s. First, intense and strong-willed, wheelchair-bound Dean Jensen, played hauntedly by Mike Baldwin, has — had — it all: new wife, house, health, and gradually loses. Big-time. Searching for some kind of peace, maybe other miserable souls with whom to share company, the film begins with Dean convening peers from a local support group –seemingly normal Richard Kessler and Sunshine œSunny Howard — in his murky, nondescript house with flickering firelight foreshadowing the hell ahead. Seated around a table, the tragic trio of strangers having already hit rock-bottom, plunge deeper into their personal abysses, gradually discovering quite a bit about themselves and each other, discovering what they’re made of, who they’ve become, and who had a hand in the events that brought them to their lowly, self-destructing state. No professional help was present in those scenes, the spine of the film, as that would have stolen the film’s dramatic thunder. These three were in so many ways near death, and had no one else to turn to. Dark territory, to say the least. But, I’ll say more.
Sunny, played by Ali Lukowski, comes from religion, Myers admirably taking the high road, using the character as a means to comment on self-centered — not Christ-centered — Christianity. That said, it would have helped the film if there were a character somewhere with a little more compassion for Sunny, someone a little more Christ-following, Christ-like. All her friends and family turned on her, not a single peer to show her sympathy, unconditional love; granted, her tyrannical father’s change of heart for her, his daughter, was touching and rang true.
Still, Lukowski’s performance is probably the film’s richest as the protagonist. So sad was her character’s arc that Sunny’s anguished face remains seared in my mind, so much that it was like watching family go down the same path. What makes it all the more terrible is I also remember her, how she looked before, in that library, even at that abortion clinic. Innocent. Pure. What a fall.
Will Haza’s Richard, arguably the more pitiful of the two male lead characters, is a guy in search of himself and is sort of the opposite of Dean, and may be the next sympathetic character after Sunny. Though perceived relatively normal, just troubled, he gradually loses it as increasingly manic ringleader Jensen callously prods him on in their most dangerous game. Really both Dean Jensen and Richard Kessler aren’t good or bad, they’re just not good with women, choosing or sticking with them. Worse, it’s their fatal flaw, revealed in two of the most shocking flashbacks, which is all I can say without spoiling it.
And special mention goes to Jan-David Soutar, Sunny’s smarmy boyfriend, Leon Carmichael, the desperately needed source of comic relief, however scant. In a lesser film, Leon wouldn’t have been properly grounded in reality. And it’s morbidly ironic that he’s responsible for turning Sunny’s world upside-down; with her consent, of course. He’s a guy we all probably know and, gents, if we’re really honest, might even be on a bad day. But really, all Myers’ main and supporting cast could be people we know or have known; everyday citizens in our communities, each with their own burdens and fears boiling beneath faces worn just to get by.
One can’t help but appreciate the simmering triple-helix of story threads, how it was realistic without becoming a gimmick. The œsuicide room was an inspired device to introduce and develop the three main characters, successfully delivering expository dialogue without trying to be another cute Quentin Tarantino clone. Dialogue-driven movies are something to be encouraged, but Myers is one who dares take that storytelling approach and avoids viewers’ interest piling up like traffic at the scene of an highway accident; partly because he and his actors make every word count in driving, not hi-jacking, the story. John Frankenheimer and Rod Serling were masters of this, of course: dialogue as the action.
Helping things run smoothly, editor Myers’ inventive œeye-trace cuts, the shot juxtapositions and Composer Dan Schepleng’s somber, evocative score kept the narrative’s slow pace interesting. The score in particular was handled excellently, initially passages of seething and elegant ambiance, eventually traditional music, before finally falling like dominoes in operatic crescendo the final 25 minutes, driving home and drawing things to a soul-scathing close. That all said, the film could have been trimmed, just a few frames here and there, not butchered; it was a little long. Even so, the excess frames here and there are not a deal-breaker.
Cinematography. Some criticize the artful lighting, the deep saturation Jamie Bender brought to the film; well, maybe I haven’t seen a lot of movies, but it worked stunningly. Watching the film, it’s clear from the beginning it wasn’t just another angsty pain-filled character ensemble; the rich color pallet, muted at times, kept my eyes wide and glued to the screen and to the story.
No frame of the film relents, nor is there anything to suggest it was creatively bankrupt, compromised in order to get ahead. And the sheer superhuman might it took to execute such a compelling and engrossing beast, to pull it altogether in the end despite the disaster of the original actress hired and what she tried to pull, Myers should be proud of what he accomplished with his talented cast and crew; they all made it to the finish line, rendering a milestone. Needless to say, good for them for winning so many awards with this one film, so early in their careers.
The film is Myers’ masterpiece, despite being only his first feature. As a film, it’s a cross-section of various rising Baltimore-area talent before and behind the camera, and all these weeks since seeing a preview copy, is difficult to forget, as it’s the kind of film worth revisiting film more in the coming years, if for no other reason than to study and appreciate the visual storytelling strategies throughout what is a dynamic, but still small-scale story.
Plenty of independent cinema already out there amounts to gimmickry and manipulative shock tactics that would only have been heavy-handed with the strangers-gun-and-secrets premise on which the story’s founded. But Roulette is different, special, yet remains just an indicator of the writer-director’s future potential in shooting and pulling feature films together, telling human stories. Directing is so much more than pointing a camera, and as Erik Kristopher Myers keeps going around the country with Roulette, winning additional awards, producers in or out of Hollywood will be coming around to see Roulette and to develop and execute more such uncompromising films; and if they’re lucky, with Myers at the helm.
It’s a dark, dark movie a la David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. It’s not Care Bears. Make no mistake: it’s an emotionally visceral film; not for everyone, particularly the squeamish, as previously stated twice.
Roulette is an emotional avalanche of ice as well as fire, the elements of the human heart. Yet, I understand and am fully behind its winning all the awards available, and congratulate Myers on not giving us a non-personal, non-artistic first film, something rushed and compromised just to get made in order to have something to show and get better work from. This was and is Myers’ thesis project, his filmmaking soul laid bare for all to see should they have the mind and stomach to.
Mike Baldwin, Will Haza, Ali Lukowski, Michelle Murad, Taylor Lee Hitaffer, Jan-David Soutar, Troy Russell, Frank B. Moorman, Mark Kilbane, David Kalman, Leanna Chamish, George Stover, Gavin Peretti, Amy Freedman, Jenna St. John, Frank Lama
Four-Fingered Films, J65 Productions, Interpol Films, Meridian Media