Part Jacob’s Ladder, part ‘70s exploitation film, and all nutso, writer/director Chad Ferrin’s Someone’s Knocking at the Door, screening May 7th at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, is a delirious acid-trip blast that should serve as a welcome diversion for lovers of grimy, on-the-cheap horror fare – at least until the final reel.
There has been quite a bit of irony-free throwback in the horror genre as of late – most notably in last year’s The House of the Devil, from young director Ti West. That film elegantly reconstructed the look and feel of an ‘80s horror film while also taking place in that era; Someone’s Knocking at the Door, on the other hand, is set in modern-day (we even glimpse an iPhone at one point) but revels in the down-in-the-gutter aesthetic typical of Troma Films, early-period Wes Craven (Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes) and any-period Herschell Gordon-Lewis (Two Thousand Maniacs, The Wizard of Gore). It’s cute, sure, but it also feels like a breath of fresh air in an era of regrettably glossy, soulless horror remakes and banal PG-13 multiplex rubbish.
The film immediately sets itself apart from the pack in its opening scene, which features an excruciatingly in-your-face man-on-man anal rape that will have the squeamish hiding behind their coat-sleeves and more hardened horror fans beaming in gleeful (and alternately pained) appreciation. Following the young man’s brutal murder (termed “death by rape”), a group of his medical school cohorts are interrogated by the local police, who suspect the killing may have been drug-related. Indeed, these friends are a wayward bunch prone to heavy narcotic use and experimentation, recently with a potent drug named “Taldon”, which seems to be contributing to some recent hallucinations among them and which Justin (Deadgirl’s Noah Segan) suspects may have somehow led to his friend’s death. Soon, paranoia sets in when the friends begin to suspect that Wilma and John Hopper, two sex-crazed serial murderers in the 1970s who were detained at and seemingly escaped from the hospital’s mental ward, have returned for a new round of bloody mayhem.
While the entire cast gives it their all (among the leads I especially enjoyed Silvia Spross’ intuitive performance as Annie), the most striking portrayals come from actors Ezra Buzzington and Elina Madison, who play John and Wilma Hopper, respectively. Buzzington, with his gargantuan Dumbo ears and cold-blooded smile, inhabits his nasty character (supposedly endowed with a member that measures 4” around and 15” long – all the better to “fuck you ‘til you die”) with a sociopathic absorption that is hair-raising to watch. Madison, a veteran of soft-core “erotic thrillers” and B-to-Z-grade horror fare, clearly relishes her role and tackles every crazy moment of it with go-for-broke conviction. To say she’s perfect for the part of a frequently-nude serial killer in possession of a hungry vagina (just trust me on this one) isn’t meant as an insult, I assure you – you’ve got to carve out your niche in this town, god knows, and boy has she.
Similarly, helmer Chad Ferrin, who has directed his fair share of shoestring shockers (Unspeakable, The Ghouls, Easter Bunny, Kill Kill!), has made a name for himself amongst a small coterie of likeminded filmmakers and dedicated underground horror enthusiasts, and his obvious fondness for a bygone era of grungy DIY genre films shines through remarkably. He gets the look right, and his attention to kitschy detail – from wind-up teddy bears to discarded plastic dolls – is impressive and rare in today’s sleek and sanitized consumer culture (are you listening, Screen Gems?). On the other hand, the budget certainly shows in spots – including one woefully underpopulated “crowd” scene following the discovery of the first victim and a funeral that seems to be taking place in the bowels of a dusty L.A. canyon as opposed to an actual cemetery (although the film’s dreamy, ambiguous tone could help explain this). The characterizations also come off a little shallow; there are a couple of well-orchestrated, naturalistic dialogue scenes focusing on the interaction between the group of druggie pals, but because we learn next to nothing about any of them as individuals it feels like a superficial victory. And while the synth-heavy musical score by Brad Joseph Breeck effectively evokes cheapazoid ‘70s drive-in cinema, it’s too frequently broken up by incongruous punk-infused songs by indie rock band The Mae Shi (which proves particularly fatal for one crucial chase scene towards the end).
Of course, it’s the above-mentioned indulgences that also give Someone’s Knocking at the Door a refreshingly handmade allure, warts and all, and serve as reminders of the affection with which the film was made (after all, it’s the imperfections that gave Ferrin’s chief inspirations their dingy soul). That being said, the director isn’t out solely to shock and titillate us; there is a meaning behind it all, a reason for its existence beyond the ample jiggly boob shots and bloody, gross-out gags (the special makeup effects by Tom Devlin are superb). Unfortunately, it’s just that message that proves to be the film’s Achilles’ heel, not in its essence but in its delivery. Without giving anything away, I’ll only say that the third act feels a little cheap and on-the-nose, at odds with the deceptively off-the-cuff invention that brings us to that point. I won’t go so far as to say it’s a cheat (judged by the closing credits, the film’s moral intent is as personal as its aesthetic design), but in my view Ferrin clobbers when he should have caressed.
’Someone’s Knocking at the Door’ screens at Los Angeles’ New Beverly Cinema this Friday, May 7th at 11:59pm. 7165 West Beverly Blvd., 90036. Admission $5.