If it were true that enthusiasm can overcome budgetary problems and create art, then all of Ed Wood’s or David “The Rock” Nelson’s canon would be screened daily at MOMA. Talent is still necessary to elevate a movie beyond its means. The stigma that continues to plague the independent movie industry extends from the second Sturgeon’s Law: “90% of everything is crud.” The salvation of the indie industry is his first law: “Nothing is always absolutely so”. Meaning, of course, that there are exceptions to every rule—even if a low budget movie totters dangerously backwards from the top 10% into the crud-ridden 90%, it is closer to being non-crud than crud. The “there but for the grace of talent” phenomena. Which is where Chris LaMartina enters.
The Maryland-based filmmaker defies expectation because he manages to succeed where you’re certain he’d fail. His latest movie, for instance, awaiting an official release, “President’s Day”, is a high school-based slasher movie involving a killer dressed like Abraham Lincoln. Based on that sentence alone, you’d hardly expect it to be watchable, let alone interesting, but LaMartina manages a surprisingly suspenseful and dark-humored home run. The same is true of the movies comprising this Camp Motion Pictures Double-Feature release. The synopses of both “Book of Lore” and “Grave Mistakes” sound like absolutely nothing special. But thanks to writer Jimmy George’s deft handling of the character-driven scripts and LaMartina’s instinctive talent for tight editing and directing even the most wooden of actors, the double feature makes for highly enjoyable and shockingly effective viewing.
“Book of Lore” begins with the disappearance and subsequent gruesome murder of a young woman. Her boyfriend, seeking out the killer, stumbles over many of his backwater town’s urban legends, particularly the mysterious murderer known as “The Devil’s Left Hand”. Every nook and cranny of Latonsville is crammed with vengeful ghosts, drowning lakes, even a haunted school locker, and his guide to these evil places is a composition notebook dubbed “The Book of Lore” by its dead author. George’s script brings this film beyond “stock” and LaMartina’s handling of the script makes what could have been a very pedestrian, painful experience fun and not a little bit creepy (particularly the part of the “Devil’s Left Hand” legend involving eleven missing-and-presumed-murdered babies). With the exceptions of Aj Hyde and D. Patrick Bauer (a dead ringer for a young Jason Presson), the acting ranges from nothing-special to “happened to be around when we needed to fill a role”, but the aforementioned exceptions keep our sympathies in the right place, even when the characters are not behaving particularly sympathetically. What’s particularly nice about this pair, particularly Hyde’s “Rick”, is that they are played as real people. They aren’t random the random pot-smoking a******s that pop up as anti-heroes in no-budget fare. They’re allowed to be well-rounded characters, and that includes acting in ways that alienate them, occasionally, from the audience, but regain their footing later, just like anyone you know in real life.
Similarly, “Grave Mistakes” has the potential to shoot straight over the schlock cliff, but veers expertly before doom. An anthology, (which can be a recipe for disaster in any project) telling a quartet of stories straight out of the Amicus slush pile, “Grave Mistakes” is related to us by an intense grave robber and a doing-his-best antique store owner. The stories provide us with zombies, ghosts, vampires and demons but each is given a unique twist. The best of the bunch is a vampire tale set in a sleep-study hospital, and it’s no accident that Hyde’s presence in this entry puts it ahead of the others, performance-wise.
Both shot on DV, LaMartina manages to also avoid the pitfalls of the format, utilizing deep shadows without losing too much detail or gaining too much grain. He’s obviously someone who paid attention to either lighting courses or the “Visions of Light” documentary. Particularly effective is the look that “guest cinematographer” Joe Davidson gives to the movie’s wrap-around segments, making use of rich reds and a slightly nicer film look than the rest of the film.
All in all, someone seeking out “so bad it’s good” entertainment would be advised to look elsewhere, because both movies are genuinely good. Those of you who disdain independently-made horror because it lacks the slick emptiness of a Michael Bay remake won’t be won over, but that’s your loss, really. Because both “Book of Lore” and “Grave Mistakes” utilize elements available to the big studios but never implemented, namely creativity and affection for the subject matter. Oh, and more than a little bit of talent.