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By Mike Watt | April 18, 2013

In the movies drug deals never go off as planned. If they did, I suppose, the running times of the movies would be a lot shorter. In the case of Cross Bearer, a simple plan to do the deal, rip off the owner, and retire with a girlfriend to the Greek Isles results in disaster more quickly than most. For strippers Heather and Bunny, the Morality Gods come down on them particularly hard.

The deal seems like a godsend to Heather at first. She hates the club she dances in, and that goes double for the clients and triple for her scumbag boss, Harry. She shares living quarters with the deceitful and emotionally-abusive Victoria and her baby, so her homelife is fairly awful as well. The only source of happiness comes from her tender relationship with the lovely Bunny. They make love, lie in Bunny’s bed and dream of an unobtainable better life in Greece. Unobtainable until Harry gives her the assignment to do “business” with scuzzy hipster dealer Anton. Unaware that Victoria is ready to sell her out over the deal—for the less-ambitious dream of unlimited cocaine—Heather gathers a little crew of her closest friends, including Bunny and pornographer pal Mark, and head to Anton’s pad at the top of an abandoned tenement building and warehouse.

First on-scene complication: only Victoria has ever seen Anton’s little penthouse and she was a little out of it at the time. All she remembers is that it’s on a top floor to separate him from the homeless folks who occasionally turn up in the lower-floor areas.

Second complication: one of said homeless is a religious maniac who has made it his mission to purify the Earth of its sinners by means of a carpenter’s claw hammer. Having already dispatched at least one nauseating druggie (played to disgusting perfection by co-producer and effects artist Doug Sakmann), imagine the delight on the face of the self-styled “Cross Bearer,” hidden beneath his sackcloth mask, when a whole platoon of sinners arrives! Purifying sinners is good cardio, sure, and it’s also hard work, but that’s what makes for a good instrument of God, right? Soon, Heather’s dreams of Greece are completely bashed in and replaced with the simple need to get the hell out of this maze of a building before she too is pulverized.

I had vague recollections of this film being in production, under the title of “Strip Club Slaughter,” and I wasn’t in that much of a hurry to see yet another low-budget slasher film, but Cross Bearer contains enough pitch-black moments that it rises above the majority of the mediocre movies sharing the subgenre that we’ve all endured over the years. Apart from a few padded sections of gleeful debauchery, Cross Bearer’s tone is very bleak and the performances very realistic.

As it turns out, the production itself proved to be quite a nightmare. Shot in Philadelphia during one of the horrible blizzards of ’12, in a huge set that was unheated save for a small, portable kerosene radiator, Ahlbrandt and his cast—also serving as crew—suffered frostbite and exhaustion, shooting day and night for a week, to bring the film to completion. Soon, the happy-yay-fun slasher story was subverted by their real life misery, coating the majority of the film in very thick unhappiness on top of the copious gore.

Fortunately, the bulk of the cast play their roles straight and Ahlbrandt’s script keeps the stereotypes to a minimum. There are no clear-cut “victims” in the group and he makes it clear from the start that any one of them could die and die horribly. Whether you like or identify with the characters doesn’t really matter since they come off like real people suffering real problems. The stereotypes of “prostitute,” “drug dealer” and “pornographer” are jumping-off points here, and leave stereotype behind once that warehouse door closes. The central relationship between Heather and Bunny has less to do with “two chicks making out” than it does with genuine affection and longing. There’s plenty of T&A put to use here, but their relationship retains a certain purity.

In point of fact, all of the female characters have a depth to them that’s becoming less-uncommon in the indie horror business, while the males lack a dimension. As the killer, Williams is less a person and more a force; Cronin’s Mark comes off a little too forced at times as an unlikely occasional hero; Brown’s Harry is just reprehensible and we see little behind his mask of vulgarity. Jean, Marie and DePaul establish their characters as people early on, and their fates come to mean something as the movie progresses.

With veteran Sakmann in charge of the gore, you expect a lot of juicy, practical head-bashings and he doesn’t disappoint. Cross Bearer hits all of its marks in terms of violence, nudity and religious zealotry, and results in a solid, tight little thriller (almost too tight, coming in at just over an hour), that strives to be just a little more than the sum of its parts. Since the cast and crew genuinely suffered for their art, their suffering registers and in a very organic way.

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