“Production value” tends to mean slightly different things to different people, but essentially it encompasses the ability of a film-maker to make their product look, sound and feel professional. Of course, then we get into the definition of “professional”, and things rapidly get murky. Micro-budget productions in the past tended to celebrate their lack of production values and embrace their cobbled together nature, but in many cases this was out of necessity – as throughout the 80s and much of the 1990s it was near impossible to capture the look of a Hollywood production on a consumer grade video camera.
In 2013 the lines have begun to blur. High quality, high definition video is accessible by nearly everyone, and many people can take better looking video on their phones than most no-budget directors of the 1980s could even dream of. However, while the video and audio qualities have improved by leaps and bounds, what actually appears in front of the camera has stayed fairly standard. Rickety sets and dreadful acting are still the norm, as these sort of resources tend to cost money. And, even with IndieGoGo, Kickstarter and others.. money remains hard to come by.
Michael Fredianelli’s THE SCARLET WORM compounds this issue further by not only being ultra low-budget (reported to be as low as $7500), but by also being a period western, with all of the trappings and difficulties that would imply. It’s a strikingly ambitious venture, but faces much greater difficulties than simply finding capable actors to deliver the stylized dialogue from David Lambert’s script. A western requires sets, horses, costumes, guns, and a scope that is simply beyond the reach of most low-budget productions. Even with a capable and experienced director like Fredianelli at the helm, I was prepared for this to be a disaster.
Kudos, then, to Fredianelli and his many collaborators for delivering a unique, entertaining western on the cheap that provides all of the gunfights, brawls, and show-downs one might require out of their cowboy entertainment. And it looks damn good, too, with period costumes and weaponry going well beyond what most might thing possible on a sub-$10,000 budget. Crucially, he’s put together a terrific cast, including some Western vets who add some welcome weariness to the proceedings, while making the final result much more than just a regurgitation of cliches.
Not willing to just be ambitious in terms of look, THE SCARLET WORM also manages to tackle a difficult topic – abortion – in a surprisingly sensitive and non-judgmental way. I’ll admit to some initial concern when the issue was brought up in the film, but it mercifully avoids preachiness or ostracizing either side of the hot-button issue. Aaron Stielstra stars as Print, a veteran gunfighter who treats his assassinations as artistic statements. His employer Mr. Paul (Brett Halsey) hires him to train a cocky youngster and go after a local brothel owner (Dan van Husen) who has been performing abortions on his prostitutes. Print tries to bring his usual flair for the dramatic to his killings, but he finds himself conflicted as his relationship with the owner, and the upstart understudy, develop.
While reaching for the sun-bleached, sweaty style of a Spaghetti western, the film is devoid of many of the rough edges that define that genre. It comes closer to the masculine hypothesizing of Peckinpah’s western efforts, though everything is a bit too bright and clean compared to the often hellish landscapes of those classics. The film would have benefited from embracing some of the darkness of its inspirations, but that’s a minor complaint when the photography itself is as attractive as it is here – making great use of the California surroundings (including what appears to be the legendary Vasquez Rocks in a few shots).
It’s also helped greatly by some memorable appearances from a collection of legendary actors with extensive Western experience. Michael Forest starred in countless euro-westerns and poliziottesco films in the 70s, and has a welcome, brief appearance here. Even better are substantive roles for the great Brett Halsey (who appeared in a number of Spaghetti Westerns as well, including Mario Bava’s ROY COLT AND WINCHESTER JACK) and the incredible Dan van Husen as Heinrich Kley. While the rest of the leads sometimes look a bit too babyfaced to be convincingly weathered killers, Aaron Stielstra brings plenty of confidence to his portrayal of Print, while Kevin Giffin impresses greatly as the laconic Hank (who gets the best scene in the film opposite Halsey).
An effective, stirring Western that manages to squeeze every penny of its budget, THE SCARLET WORM is a true triumph that puts many big-budget efforts to shame. A fine cast and a bang-up script keeps things moving, while the production values rarely betray the film’s cost. A must-see for fans of westerns or low-budget cinema, and a fine example of what can be done on a microbudget with enough passion, planning and skill.
Two Nightmare 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
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