by Jason Coffman
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Independent filmmaker Eric Stanze first gained attention with his super low-budget horror film Savage Harvest in 1994, and won major acclaim in the underground horror community with the harrowing Scrapbook, which was named Rue Morgue magazine’s “Best Independent Movie of 2001.” Given the often punishing content and style of the films produced and released by his company Wicked Pixel Cinema, the relatively restrained, low-key horror of 2007’s Deadwood Park came as a welcome surprise. Gone were the rough-edged “shot-on-video” look and claustrophobic interiors; Deadwood Park was a hugely ambitious undertaking for any independent filmmaker, a deadly serious horror film taking place in the present and WWII, shot on slick digital video in widescreen. The fact that Stanze pulled it off in grand style— Deadwood Park is easily one of the best independent American horror films of the last decade— meant that expectations for his next film among die-hard horror fans are ridiculously high.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Stanze has zigged (after a fashion) where many would have predicted he would zag. Ratline, his latest feature, improves on the already impressive production values of Deadwood Park but uses them for a much different kind of horror story. Where Deadwood Park was often quiet and subtle, Ratline is loud and nasty. In other words, if Deadwood Park put a newfound maturity on display, Ratline is a reminder that this is still the same guy who made Scrapbook— the picture may be prettier, but he still knows how to hit you in the gut.
As the film opens, Crystal (Stanze regular Emily Haack) guns down the guys on the other side of an illicit deal involving a large bag of cash. She and Kim (Alex Del Monacco) take the money and hide out in a small Midwestern town. As it happens, this is hardly the sleepy, innocent town it appears to be— aside from harboring a small but devoted Satanic cult, a powerful evil lies hidden here. The “Blood Flag,” a Nazi flag used in arcane, demonic Nazi experiments, is being relentlessly sought out by Frank Logan (Jason Christ). It soon becomes clear that the arrivals of Frank and Crystal to this place are hardly coincidental, and as Logan moves closer to his goal, Crystal will be forced to make a decision that could seal the fate of all humankind.
Ratline is full of surprises, and discussing much of the plot in any detail is bound to ruin them. Suffice to say that the storyline takes a few hard left turns and gleefully pulls the rug out from under the audience more than once. Stanze and co-writer/star Jason Christ treat the story’s mix of horror fiction and historical fact seriously, but there is a streak of dark humor here that was notably absent from Deadwood Park. Horror fans looking for the old standbys won’t be disappointed— there is plenty of gore on display, and for the most part the makeup and effects are fantastic, but despite their queasy effectiveness, they’re not the focus of the film. Ratline looks and sounds great, too, making it another technical leap forward for Stanze and Wicked Pixel, and the lead performances by Emily Haack and Jason Christ are excellent. It may lack the emotional heft of Deadwood Park, but there’s no question that Ratline is another example of independent American horror film at its best.
Ratline is available on DVD from Wicked Pixel Cinema and is available On Demand from Amazon.com. The DVD features two commentary tracks (one with Eric Stanze, the other with Stanze along with Emily Haack and Jason Christ), a lengthy behind-the-scenes documentary, deleted scenes, a gag reel and trailers.
Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He writes reviews for Film Monthly and “The Crown International Files” for Criticplanet.org as well as contributing to Fine Print Magazine (www.fineprintmag.net).
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