A beautifully shot and atmospheric horror movie, CROWBAR: THE KILLINGS OF WENDELL GRAVES holds surprises for those expecting the usual slasher fare from its grim title. While the antagonist, with his welding mask, apron and trusty (titular) crowbar, looks the part, this is a film more interested in mood than cheap thrills. Definitely not a gorefest, it’s instead an often serene and attractive conspiracy piece, evoking some of the moodier horror films of the 70s. A few weak performances and over-stylized moments can’t take away from what is a consistently interesting, very attractive film that proves that shooting on a budget doesn’t have to mean sacrificing flair.
Now who exactly is this Wendell Graves? Well, Wendell was just a kid when he witnessed his parents being brutally murdered by a hulking figure wielding a crowbar, and now his community keeps a terrible secret regarding his childhood home. Of course, none of this is known to Veronica and Alex Stark, a young couple just moving into the neighborhood many years later. After Veronica’s two friends (one being Alex’s sister) are murdered in the house, the couple start investigating the dark past of their new abode. Will they be able to uncover the terrible secret before Wendell catches up with them? More importantly, will we get to see some crowbar-on-skull violence? I’m not tellin’!
CROWBAR benefits greatly from what must have been extensive planning from director Scott Phillips, and it’s frankly astonishing how much production value he is able to squeeze out of his budget – particularly his use of a leaf-covered orchard which provides for some of the film’s most beautifully atmospheric moments. Occasionally this excess of style can be a distraction, particularly in the frequent use of dolly shots, and the now-cliche dolly zoom shot (from VERTIGO and JAWS), but for the most part Phillips – along with his talented Director of Photography Kurt Richter – makes the film look like a million bucks. It goes to show just how much impact a little foresight and thinking about shot composition can have towards making a low-budget production look professional.
Equally as impressive is the film’s use of sound, both in terms of effects and music. While you’ll occasionally notice an odd transition when a character speaks – likely a result of attempting to filter out some background noise – the actual palette of sound effects is effective at evoking scares, and there’s an attention to detail often lacking from low-budget productions which tend to turn to canned effects (and stock music) prematurely. Composer Crystal Frost lends some very impressive orchestral compositions which mix beautifully with the photography, particularly the track played over the opening credits. Sound is an often overlooked – and underappreciated – element in shoestring filmmaking, and the attention to detail pays off wonderfully here.
Performances are uneven, though I was pleasantly surprised by the two leads – Natasha Timpani and Michael Clark – who are not the passive victims you might get find your usual underwritten horror film. They bring an intelligence to their characters, and a believability to their relationship, which grounds some of the more ridiculous moments. Speaking of ridiculous, some of the supporting characters play the material way over the top. While it adds to the Lynchian oddness that permeates the town, the goofy, sometimes manic performances are a little much, and at their worst are unpleasantly irritating.
In our interview coming later this week, director Scott Phillips mentioned that avoiding explicit gore and extended stalk-and-slash scenes was a conscious decision, but the film still has its share of violence for those who require such things in their horror films. The crowbar can make for a rather cumbersome weapon, but there are scenes of appropriately unpleasant blunt force trauma, as well as a few impressive stabbings. It’s certainly a film more focused on atmosphere than jump-scares, but there’s enough of the glorious red-stuff to quench the thirst of desperate gorehounds.
There’s really no secret to making a successful, watchable low-budget film.What it really requires is a tight script, decent performers and a confident director willing to work with talented people to make the most of his/her resources. CROWBAR: THE KILLINGS OF WENDELL GRAVES doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but by going the extra mile in crucial areas it’s able to make for an enjoyable, fast-paced experience. A step above most low-budget productions, and worth going out of your way to check out.
Two Nightmares out of Five – SHOCKING SUCCESS
One Nightmare – No-Budget Perfection, Two Nightmares – Shocking Success, Three Nightmares – Shows Potential, Four Nightmares – Not Much Fun, Five Nightmares – Please Kill Me
Join us this week for an interview with CROWBAR: THE KILLINGS OF WENDELL GRAVES director Scott Phillips
Doug has been a geek for as long as he’s been alive, but has only been blogging about film since 2008; originally writing for his personal site and eventually moving to Daily Grindhouse where he writes regularly about micro-budget films and film-makers in his No-Budget Nightmares column. At the end of 2011 he started the popular No-Budget Nightmares podcast with Moe Porne, and regularly contributes to a variety of other genre film podcasts. He likes movies, movies and movies.