There's a snide aside in Dark Reel that the movie-within-this-movie is being made only for alimony's sake. Something tells me the joke isn't too far off target. Why else would otherwise sorta-kinda "name" actors like Lance Henriksen, Tony Todd, Mercedes McNab and Edward Furlong do a lower-than-low-budget mess like this?
Believe it or not, when I call Dark Reel a mess, I mean it in the nicest possible way. I actually liked a lot of what it had to offer, but I couldn't roll with the tonal punches… I don't mind genre-blending, but Dark Reel doesn't quite succeed at being funny, mysterious, sexy, or scary. It certainly tries (think something that wants to be "Entourage" meets The Black Dahlia murder case, but comes off feeling more like "The Comeback" meets 1992's Forever).
The story follows loser fan-boy Adam Waltz (Edward Furlong) after he gets his big break and wins a contest which allows him a walk-on and one line of dialogue in Pirate Wench, a movie starring his favorite scream queen, B-level babe Cassie Blue (Tiffany Shepis). The swashbuckler is being produced by has-been Connor Pritchett (Lance Henriksen), an enfant terrible who surrounds himself with yes-men (Brooke Lyons, Emmanuel Xuereb) and seemingly hires his actors and talent using the chaos theory. Directing Pirate Wench is huffy Derek Deeds (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), and starring opposite Cassie is a vainglorious blonde, Rhett Johnson (Jake Grace), who believes that eating raw purple onions before love scenes is a guaranteed aphrodisiac.
Little do they know that their film is cursed by an aspiring actress brutally murdered in the 50s (Scarlett May, played by Alexandra Holden) — that is, until they themselves start winding up on the ultimate cutting room floor.
There's a smorgasbord of well-drawn, memorable characters here. Each one, from Sound Guy (Justin Neill) to the onion chef (Whit Hertford), is played with obvious care and admirable dedication. I haven't read the script but if it was all on the page, then major kudos should go to writer Aaron Pope (adapting a story by Dark Reel's director, Josh Eisenstadt). It's not easy to make walking clichés talk — and whoever cast the film also deserves a shout-out.
Two lesser-known actor standouts, for me, are Grace (his broadly comic performance and angular looks remind me a lot of Guy Pearce as he was in Bedtime Stories) and Lyons (as Tanya she only parrots her boss, but her studied ennui, comedic timing and mannerisms are spot-on). There are also some extremely painful and strained performances here, but I'll pull my punches.
My favorite Shepis performance is still in 2006's Abominable, but she does a good job here with a lot more to do (she and Furlong pretty much shoulder the load as the leads). Her fans won't be disappointed, but having seen her in person on several occasions… I have got to say the DP of this movie (Charlie Rose) really should be. It's a shame he and his lighting crew made such a pretty lady come off so coarse. The cinematography's blandness is limited to people: the cheap, flat ambiance of the movie makes its "special effects" a lot less special, as the dismemberments, guttings, stabbings and stranglings come off far more silly than scary.
In the end tedium and puzzlement overpower intrigue — what are they trying to do? Why should I care? Does the club scene really have to go on for that long? Was the band a major investor?
Had Dark Reel been played as a black satirical comedy throughout, that would have been OK. A little ways beyond the halfway point, the movie attempts to shift gears and get serious, scary and mysterious… but the jokey characters are still trying to maintain their tongues in cheeks even after their heads are rolling. With an appallingly long running time, the hope for horror comes along a little too late.
While I can't in good conscious recommend Dark Reel even as a rental, it might be worth a look on late-night TV for insomniac fans of the cast and admirers of whacky Hollywood send-ups (just be sure and fall asleep before the end — which shouldn't be a problem).
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