Film Review – Altered Minds

I’ve seen Altered Minds described as a psychological thriller, which is in part accurate. I prefer to think of it more as a psychological mystery. I went to public school with the Writer and Director and Producer Michael Z. Wechsler, so I already had made a mental note to see this film when it was released. A small crowdfunding campaign for additional production costs let me back it and get an early copy of the DVD.


The film stars Judd Hirsch as Dr. Nathaniel Shellner, a Nobel Prize-winning psychiatrist now 75 years old and slowly dying from cancer. As his family gathers for his birthday celebration, chaos begins to ensue as youngest son Tommy exhibits a worsening mental instability and paranoid accusations directed at his father. Tommy (Ryan O’Nan), who was adopted by the family as a youngster, is joined at the get-together by fellow adopted children Julie (Jaime Ray Newman) and Harry (C.S. Lee, who many will recognize from his role on the Showtime series Dexter). Also in attendance is the Doctor’s faithful wife Lillian (Caroline Lagerfelt) and eldest child Leonard (Joseph Lyle Taylor) who is the only natural child.


As you would expect, one has to tread lightly when reviewing a film like this because of the need to avoid any spoilers. The focus of the celebration quickly moves from Nathaniel to Tommy, and even though his rantings and stories sound fantastic they begin to have an effect on his two adopted siblings as well. As Dr. Shellner’s work has focused on traumatized patients – especially those from war zones or former military personnel – the adopted children have vague memories of their lives before being rescued and brought to the United States. And there is the usual tension between adopted children and the one natural child. Tommy becomes more and more insistent about his claims, and soon it becomes clear there may be more to the family history than meets the eye.


Shot on a moderate budget, the home and surrounding winter landscape is quite beautiful and captures the isolation the family is experiencing; there is no world but the family itself at that moment, and the microscope can only be turned within. Ryan O’Nan does a rather good turn as the troubled Tommy. His role is one that could have easily succumbed to overacting but I found he managed to walk the tightrope successfully. To my surprise, the acting I was least impressed with was that of my personal favorite Judd Hirsch and of Caroline Lagerfelt. Granted, both characters are quite reserved in personality, but I never was fully convinced by their moments of strong emotion, whether love or anger or despair. I think Mr. Hirsch played his Dr. Shellner a touch too analytically, and perhaps that reflected onto his wife’s character.


Wechsler enjoys some clever misdirection in the plot; at least enough to muddy the waters and allow you to focus more on what is happening and less on trying to guess the answers to all the looming questions. Not everything succeeds fully, but there is enough which works to make Altered Minds enjoyable and entertaining.


Overall I think most fans of this genre of film will enjoy Altered Minds, and it is good enough for me to forgive Wechsler for writing a negative review of the Romero/King masterpiece Creepshow back in 8th Grade. Considering how much I love that movie, you should be able to see I give Altered Minds more than a simple passing grade.


Big Kindle 99 Cent Sale – June 6th – June 13th

Big News!  Kindle super discount coming up.  From June 6th to June 13th you’ll be able to buy the Kindle version of “It’s Their House; I’m Just a Guest” for 99 cents on Amazon, or L0.99 on  Spread the word…please?  Also love it if some of you invited friends to like this page…..Anyway, here’s the link to the book itself.



The Day She Told Me – A Mara Story

One of the most formidable obstacles for me when I am writing about the past (or simply thinking about the past) is putting me in the same position I was then. It is too easy to take my current self and drop that level of experience, that mindset, that knowledge into past events. Of course this helps explain why I have such trouble forgiving myself for things that – at the time – were the best decisions I knew to make. It takes a lot of focus and a lot of consideration to adjust for what I didn’t know back then, what I hadn’t learned, and what wasn’t common knowledge.

I remember when Mara first told me she had been sexually abused by her paternal grandfather. It was New Year’s Eve, or more correctly it was in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, only a month or so after we’d started going out. I’d been invited to spend the evening with her family and their friends in a celebration, and despite my misgivings it turned out to be a pretty good time. There was champagne punch, which was weaker than the alcohol I was used to consuming at age 15 but still enjoyable. There were party games, including “pass the orange” which I’d first seen in Charade; that’s still one of my favorite movies. There was a game of Trivial Pursuit where our team won, in part because Mara’s father thought James Bond preferred his martini’s stirred and not shaken. There was also a game of Password which Mara and I won outright. We did get a lot of funny looks and some half-joking accusations of cheating when I said “Florida” and she knew to respond “ashtray” but it made sense to us and that was all that mattered.

I walked home from the party, and called Mara a little after settling in as she had asked me to. We laughed about some of the evening’s excitement on the phone, and then she told me she had something she needed to tell me. “I was molested by my grandfather, from when I was an infant until at least when I was twelve years old.” And I told her I was sorry. That was it.

It is difficult for people to understand that neither of us knew anything about the long-term effects of sexual abuse back then. Society seems to choose one secret issue at a time and expose it to the masses through movies, news specials, Judy Blume books and after school specials. Alcoholism was already a known commodity by then. When we were just reaching puberty drugs were getting their day; movies like “Not My Kid” focused on the problems with pills, marijuana and harder stuff. And eating disorders were just making the rounds. We’d just learned the difference between anorexia and bulimia, and a few of the supposed reasons behind them. But sexual abuse, which today is talked about like it happens all the time (and it does), was still a dirty little secret. Nobody talked about, nobody admitted it, and most of all nobody knew the long-term effects. So when Mara told me, for her it was more about sharing a shameful secret that I might consider made her gross or disgusting. And for me it was just an explanation that fit into some of her family dynamics. But for both of us, the fact that she had been sexually abused – even for so many years – was almost the same as her telling me about a car accident she had been in. It was something bad that happened. There was no real significance in the present, except that she didn’t want to be around her grandfather.

I know it isn’t my fault, and I know we were both ignorant of the truth, but I still haven’t forgiven myself for how wrong we were about the impact it would have – and already was having – on her life.

So much of the problem was just bad timing, and unfortunate circumstances. Mara was my first girlfriend, my High School sweetheart. She was the first person I had sex with, and the first woman I fell in love with. I had no basis of comparison to see how odd some of her behavior really was. It wasn’t like I could compare Mara to my mother; although at that age I didn’t know the specifics of an alcoholic schizophrenic I knew enough to realize my mother was a mess. I didn’t have a “normal” female role model to use as a guide. As time passed and Mara grew depressed, acted crazy, slept with anybody who showed an interest in her, had blackouts where she couldn’t remember anything, or seemed to become an entirely different person for hours at a time I just thought that’s how most women were. Or at least that’s how Mara was, and so I’d have to accept her that way. It wasn’t a question of why she did what she did. That was just her.

I also remember the day Mara first learned that so much of who she was, and so much of the things she felt and the way she thought and the things she was driven to do, were a result of the sexual abuse she had endured. We were living together, and Mara had suffered her first complete breakdown. It was bad enough for her to go to the mental hospital and stay for a month or more. They put her in the eating disorder ward because she had gained a lot of weight in the past few years, and because she regularly found herself binging on food. She didn’t’ purge, but they still classified her as a bulimic; today I think she would have been diagnosed with Binge Eating Disorder but that wasn’t a choice then. The hospital wasn’t doing her a lot of good; they usually don’t. The Doctors spent very little time with each patient, and what time they did spend was taken up trying to decide on a pharmaceutical course of treatment. There were group therapy sessions where most of the discussions were about how the anorexic girls were sneaking laxative tea into the ward. There were also “family” sessions which were the same as the group sessions but included family members. Those were just about as useless as the others; half the parents or relatives would be angry about why their children or spouses weren’t getting better, and the other half would make enabling excuses for the patients’ actions…something like “I read about a condition where people get depressed from a lack of sunlight. I think that’s why she tried to slit her wrists again.”

Mara had talked in small groups about her life, and mentioned the sexual abuse. One nurse suggested that while she was in the hospital it might be a good time to tell her father about what HIS father had done to her. (Mara’s mother had already been told about the abuse at some point, although she would later deny this). As a preliminary step towards that discussion, they had me buy her a book on sexual abuse. I don’t remember exactly which one it was; it might have been “Healing the Shame That Binds You” or that may have just been one Mara read numerous times in later years. But whichever book it was, I bought it for her, and she read it one night after visiting hours were over. And when she was done reading it, she started screaming, ripped the book to pieces, throwing things around her assigned bed, and spent the next 24 hours in the “quiet room.”

A lot of people couldn’t understand why Mara reacted the way she did. But it made perfect sense to me. For so long she had blamed herself for the things she had been doing, and wondered what she had done wrong to make her so confused and so depressed and such a total wreck. Why her? Why these feelings, these reactions, and these problems? And now, suddenly, she picked up a book about sexual abuse and her LIFE was on every page. Everything she knew about herself, everything she couldn’t understand, everything about herself that she hated and made her wish she was dead was right there, page by page. HE had done this to her. She was broken, twisted, snapped, stretched, polluted, bleeding and bruised at age 21 because of things that had been done to her a decade earlier by someone she had loved and had trusted.

And now, in one evening of reading, she had learned just a part of the price she had paid for what he had done. And it was too much for her to handle. Mara boiled over, melted, and exploded all at once in the nuclear fission of being exposed to that much unwelcome knowledge so quickly, and in such an unfiltered fashion.

Things could never be the same again after that night. I suppose she had to know if she was going to get better. But knowing didn’t mean she would get better.

Film Review – A Dog Named Gucci

If you are familiar with the work of Writer and Director Gorman Bechard, it may be from his early dark comedies like Psychos in Love and Friends (with Benefits). Or perhaps the moody You Are Alone (which was based in part on his novel Ninth Square). More recently Bechard has made a name for himself in music-focused documentaries, notably Color Me Obsessed: A Film About the Replacements and the upcoming Who is Lydia Loveless?


With that kind of track record, A Dog Named Gucci may seem to be quite a departure. But it only takes a few minutes of the film to realize this is a subject he understands and cares deeply about. And it takes a special craftsman to tackle the topic of animal cruelty, and more specifically the struggle to enact tougher laws against it, without simply going the easy route of tear-jerking horrors and melodramatic soundtrack music.


I’m not trying to say you won’t cry when you watch this film. If you have any kind of heart, you will. But you will also be inspired to stand up and be counted, to speak out for those who have no voice. And you will have a much better understanding of just how difficult it was to get many of today’s laws in place, and just as importantly you’ll see that laws serve no purpose when time and again prosecutors choose not to pursue cases, or judges let the guilty off with a slap on the wrist because…well, because, after all, it’s just a dog.


Most of the film tells the story of Gucci, who became the face of animal cruelty in 1990’s Alabama (and beyond). As a ten-week old puppy, Gucci was owned by a 15-year old runaway. As “punishment” for refusing to date a local teenager, a group of males took Gucci from this girl, hung him by his neck, doused him with lighter fluid, and set him on fire. Doug James, an Adjunct Professor who was in the process of selling his home up the street, had been standing on his porch awaiting a prospective buyer. Hearing the dog’s cries, he and another neighbor rescued Gucci – still aflame – from under a house, doused him with water to extinguish the fire, and returned him to the girl. But she knew there was nobody she could turn to who could help this poor suffering creature, so she begged Doug to take him and help him, which he did. Gucci was eerily quiet all night, and Doug didn’t expect him to survive to the next morning. But Gucci was a fighter, and he did survive.


With this nightmare begins a multi-year fight to change the laws against animal abuse in Alabama. The prosecutor found he had to charge the thugs with destruction of property (pets being considered nothing more at the time) because the laws were written in such a way that setting fire to a couch carried a heavier punishment than strictly being charged with animal cruelty. Building a large following through the state and the south, Gucci became the face of the movement to change those laws and make animal cruelty a felony in Alabama.


Bechard’s direction style puts all the horrors Gucci and the other dogs he features suffered through right on the table, but is careful to keep the story moving in a forward direction. Instead of 90 minutes of happy endings, focus is constantly redirected at how difficult it is to get laws to change. The “Gucci Bill” as it became known took 6 years before it was finally passed and signed. Along the way exclusions had to be inserted about the right of a landowner to shoot a dog with a BB gun if it is going to the bathroom on his property. The details of how the debates are shaped, and how asinine some of the arguments against it become, will motivate and energize you to be more involved in strengthening the laws of your own state. Other cases are looked at that were used as rallying cries to change laws in North Carolina and Ohio; South Dakota became the 50th – and last – state to make animal cruelty a felony only a few years ago.


And, of course, the fight doesn’t stop there. Bechard never hits the audience over the head with anything, never browbeats. He just spells out the facts, and displays the human emotion and the faces of those who have suffered. Animal abuse is a major problem in this country; it isn’t just kids throwing rocks at stray dogs. Public pressure is the only way to make sure cases are actually prosecuted, and that punishments are handed down by the judges in a serious fashion. One poor dog who gets just a moment on the screen had been blown up by explosives; the punishment in that case was a joke. The interviews with prosecutors and animal control officers are bright lights focused on what people need to do if this problem will be treated more seriously. The public must keep the pressure on local and state politicians, and need to show support for prosecutors when they are trying cases against animal abusers. As one woman says, in a courtroom there is often a group of people sitting behind the defendant…but for the victim, nobody. And these victims cannot speak for themselves.


The credits include the song “One Voice” – featuring stars like Niko Case, Lydia Loveless, Norah Jones, Aimee Mann, Susanna Hoffs, and Queen’s Brian May – which can be purchased through ITunes (the proceeds from the song go entirely to support the cause of animal rights and the fight against animal abuse). And, if you could do me a personal favor, watch the film all the way to the end of the credits, until the screen goes dark.


A Dog Named Gucci is available on DVD from Amazon and can be viewed on demand from multiple sources. There have also been local screenings, sponsored by various animal organizations and rescue groups, so keep your eye out for one of those. I urge you to watch this film, and then tell five other people about it. Buy the DVD as a gift for others if necessary…I did. Spread the word. One person, one voice, CAN make a difference. Doug James proved that, and so did Gucci.

Movie Review – Seven Dorms of Death

According to Enid in “Ghost World” there are three kinds of bad: bad, so bad it’s good, and so bad it’s gone past good and come all the way around to bad again. With Seven Dorms of Death, director Richard Marr and writer Matthew Jason Walsh attempt a death-defying feat: make a parody of the last category, and in the process bring it all the way around to good again.


At first blush you might not realize how difficult that goal is to reach. Shows like Mystery Science Theatre 3000 took the worst of the worst in cinema and merely made it fun to watch by cracking jokes along the way. And clearly making a terrible movie isn’t very hard; studios have been doing it for decades. But to make a movie so bad that it’s good on purpose is probably harder than making a good one in the first place. After all, humor is a very subjective and elusive thing; you need to go just far enough – or a step too far – but no more. And even though you’re trying to be stupid and unskilled and just plain awful, you have to do it intelligently. The whole process is as contradictory as the realization that to inoculate yourself against a disease you must inject yourself with the very disease you wish to avoid.


As their target, Marr and Walsh selected the early 80’s horror genre, one that flooded the pre-Blockbuster video stores and local UHF stations that suddenly were syndicated by early cable TV. I’m not talking about the Shot on Video films with $500 budgets, or the wide-release slasher films. No, here I mean the mind-numbing movies so bad they quickly found their way to the television horror shows, and later to USA Network’s “Up All Night” (where Gilbert Gottfried’s pre and post-commercial bits were 100 times better than the piece of crap you were watching).


Not satisfied with just the genre, they also decided to wrap the movie with a Count Floydesque horror host (but with less of the slapstick), Baron Von Blah (played with gusto by Michael Thurber). We join his “Celluloid Crypt” as they are to begin showing their second and final feature of the evening, the awful Seven Dorms of Death. Because this is a “restored” copy of the film from a recovered VHS tape, we’ll be subjected to occasional channel changes, previews of coming attractions (which you can find on Youtube and enjoy for yourself in extended format), 80’s-era local business commercials, poor reception, and some behind-the-scenes conversations between the Baron and his crew. But that’s all part of the fun (for us, anyway).


Seven Dorms of Death brings us to a small college in New England, where the drama department is preparing to put on a play. Unfortunately, the last time (and only time) this particular play was put into production, the college’s auditorium burned down and the entire cast and crew were killed. But that was over 100 years ago, and the head of the Drama Department has no fears that any such catastrophe will stop his production.


There isn’t a lot of mystery about where we’re all headed; the opening murder scene is a combination of horrific acting, stunted dialogue, and a ski-mask-clad killer armed with a potato peeler who is suffering from a loud and heavy cough none of the characters seem to notice. That first killing also reveals we’re to expect confused and unbelievable special effects common in the genre, where close-ups of killings have little similarity to the longer shots. Wound locations change or disappear, blood goes from a tidal wave to a few drops, and the screams or moans of victims bear no resemblance to the movement of their mouths.


The characters are a line-up of the usual 1980’s suspects, but mashed together to allow multiple clichés in a limited cast. We have the flamboyant professor and director of the play, the sexually-active Geri-curled male lead and his bouncy girlfriend (who is never seen without her Walkman), the drug-using Karate Kid-looking stagehand, the shy glasses-wearing clumsy virgin who has psychic visions, the long-haired Satan worshipper, the jock (except in this case the jock appears to be in his 50’s and has suffered a previous coma), and the crotchety old janitor who warns everyone about the death curse the play is under. And soon we meet the two police detectives who are committed to solve the mystery before there are any more deaths (including Aaron Andrade in delicious full-blown overacting mode as Vargas). There’s even a Pulitzer-prize-winning female journalist who claims to be as strong and independent as Bonnie Franklin but sounds like a classic 1940’s male reporter from any random black and white film.


The humor is a mixture of in your face and hilariously subtle. Corpses keep breathing. Heads change from flesh to mannequin and back again with each cut of the film (as do popsicles and other little genius touches). Strings and fishing line are blatantly attached to props. Scenes end in mid-sentence of continue past the shouting director’s “cut!” Guns never need to be reloaded. Booms appear and disappear from the shot at will. It’s the kind of multi-layered fun I enjoy in comedies from Drop Dead Gorgeous to Chasing Amy to the Christopher Guest company films…every time you watch them you discover a little something you haven’t seen before. I really think I’ll find that to be true with Seven Dorms of Death.


If you’ve ever enjoyed (or been subjected to) the 1981 Clint Howard film Evilspeak you’ll have a good idea what this movie makes fun of, and has fun with. From the nonsensical use of an early PC to translate satanic verse (another plot point also used in Seven Dorms of Death) to characters that act with no logic or motivation, Seven Dorms of Death has it all. But instead of being terrible, here it is hilarious. On IMDB, one of Evilspeak’s listed “Goofs” perfectly describes the kind of things you’ll be laughing at. “Obvious dummies in a number of gore scenes, the dummies’ bodies and body parts are often different colors and sizes than the actors’ real bodies. Most obvious is the dummy used in the opening decapitation scene. The actress’s breasts change size and her nipple and skin color changes before she is beheaded.” But Seven Dorms of Death always tries to take things a little beyond what the worst movies did.


I could go on and on with the iconic 80’s-era horror film clichés thrown in. There’s the awful synth music (even from the devil-worshipping heavy metal band). We have countless obligatory references to Judas Priest. Impossible timelines that would make Dr. Who shudder. There are leg warmers, in and out of the shower, and on male and female characters. And characters announcing their actions and motivations aloud like some of the worst of modern Broadway musicals.


I do wonder just how difficult this movie was to make. Clearly the cast and crew are having fun with what they’re doing, but it seems to me that it can be rather difficult to be awful on purpose. Jill Poisson’s DP work is a tribute to her skill; to be able to make a good shot look exactly like a bad shot – while still having it be a good shot – seems complicated enough to make your head spin. The whole process must have been like driving on the wrong side of the road. But they pull it off.


It’s not ALL fun and games, though. I don’t want to put any spoilers in here, but I will say I never expected the real killer would be the person it turned out to be. I won’t even tell you if it was a male or female character. But it was a plot twist I never saw coming, and to go to the trouble to work things out in the plot so perfectly while surrounding the film with madcap humor must have been just as difficult as the direction and camera work. And to follow that up with even another major twist for our heroes just when you think the movie is ending was a stroke of brilliance.


I admit I am a big fan of Richard Marr and the Scorpio Films Releasing catalog. But I became a fan because of the films, whether it was the unforgettable Disco Exorcist (now finally available in Blu-Ray), the hilarious Nun of That, the creepy Beyond the Norwich Horror or the surreal Exhumed. So don’t let me prior appreciations of his work dissuade you from giving Seven Dorms of Death a try. Make some popcorn, perhaps prepare an adult beverage or two, and sit back ready to laugh.


You can order your copy direct from Scorpio Films at

Kickstarter Movie Review – Life is Cheap

Do you only enjoy the best in cinema? If you limit yourself to classic Film Noir, or the latest art house release, or even only big blockbusters like the Marvel Comics films, you can go ahead and skip this review.


Life is Cheap is NOT a film for everyone. It’s actually not a film for most people. But if you’re a fan of John Waters, if you like the most vile of Troma films, and if you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing Wayne Wang’s “Life is Cheap…But Toilet Paper is Expensive” (which may be where they got the title for Life is Cheap from) then Life is Cheap might be worth your time.


The DVD box is a good indicator of what I am talking about. “Vomit, Blood, Feces…and Fun!!” Even the UK-required “18 – Not to be supplied to any person below that age” has been edited to say “Suitable only for pervs & weirdos.”


While the story itself can become quite confused and non-cohesive, with some characters appearing briefly for little or no reason, the description on the box actually summarizes thins rather accurately. With a few edits by me: “All is going well for Joeby the toilet cleaner. But when his boss discovers his shit collecting habits, he gets the sack and must face the wrath of his fly-spray-sniffing brothel madame mother Babs and their deformed child of incest “Bubbles.” To make matters worse, Babs’ chainsaw-wielding prison girlfriend Donna is planning a breakout and has it in for him.”


This is a low budget poor-man’s Pink Flamingos, in a way. Joeby isn’t just obsessed with feces; he is also somewhat of a mental defective. He is sort of a cross between a Gumby from Monty Python and Neil from the TV series “The Young Ones.” There’s a wonderfully awful scene where he dresses in a half-cape, pours talc all over himself, inserts fangs in his mouth and announces “I am Dracula” before singing a manic song about how you can be Dracula too.


Plenty of thick accents, people screaming over each other (sort of your worst nightmare if you live in an apartment complex), sexual and bathroom humor…I don’t what else to say about this movie. Heather hated it, but then again she couldn’t understand a single word anybody said. I thought it was hilarious, but it isn’t for the faint of heart or the easily offended.


As of right now I have no idea how or where you can buy this movie. It may be available somewhere in the UK but it isn’t on Amazon and isn’t even listed on IMDB. So perhaps you’ll forever be denied the experience that is Life is Cheap. If I get any updated information I will certainly pass it on.