Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Package Arrives!

About a week ago, I had a dream in which my left foot was in need of some expensive surgery only offered by an exclusive hospital in Geneva. As I couldn't afford both the procedure and the transatlantic airfare, my doctor came up with a cunningly simple workaround - he sawed it off at the ankle and bade the receptionist to express-mail it to Switzerland. Then he gave me some crutches and told me to go home and wait. The latter half of the dream had me hobbling about restlessly, listening for the postman's heavy step at the front path. A package finally appeared, and I tore open the bubble-wrapped envelope with relief. My foot was repaired and ready to go. Full postage paid. Unfortunately - much like the Swedes and their damnable Ikea deliveries - the Swiss surgeons had neglected to include English instructions for re-attachment. I was, if you'll excuse the pun, stumped.

Anticipation is a potent thing. Whether manifesting as barely perceived butterflies in our waking lives, or powerful presentiments of slumbering wish fulfillment, the promise of a thing yet to come; assigned but unknowable, awarded yet unclaimable, can yield the sweetest of torments. And so it was this dread anticipation which did accompany my discovery of a manila-sleeved enigma stuffed in the mailbox Monday evening. Was it a foot, you ask?  Better, my friends. Better and bloodier. It was my pre-ordered copy of

The wait is over!

Many of you are familiar with the works of Stacie Ponder, professional graphic artist and tireless authoress of Final Girl. What you may not know is that last year, in the paltry span of two days, she made a near feature-length film with her own resources pretty much single-handedly. And let me tell you, it's good.

Befitting bugsplat on Google's road camera heading to Ludlow.

Krista (Lark) is looking to put some distance between her and a physically abusive spouse. We see her car arrive at a bleak desert motel in Ludlow, CA. Unpacking her meager belongings (and a seemingly endless cache of cheap vodka), she checks in to room #8.

Early on, we're introduced to Krista's constant companions: her collection of welts and bruises, her cellphone, and a rapidly-diminishing supply of assorted painkillers and anti-depressants. Ominously, each of these fairweather friends are prone to exhibit diametrically opposite functions; the bruises are both painful reminders of her past and a lifesaving catalyst for change, the phone is her lifeline to the future, as well as a dangerous connection to her abuser, and the pills will cushion her emotional trauma even as they confound her ability to cope with it. It's not just Krista who is at a crossroads - everything in her inventory possesses a dualistic, potentially malignant nature.

Ponder shows us a lot of her broken heroine's psychosexual history and the frightening depth of her instability in the hour that follows, perhaps documenting only a few minutes of Krista's downward spiral, perhaps a few days. The overall effect is designed to disorient, so further plot details become entirely subject to the viewer's sympathies. One does sympathize, however, make no mistake. Shannon Lark does a fantastic job of riveting the viewer to Krista's lonely plight, allowing us enough distance to judge her terrible choices, even as we commiserate, feeling every shock, punch and indignity.

In the highly enjoyable commentary, Stacie cites Friedkin's Bug and Polanski's Repulsion as Ludlow's thematic godparents. Myself, I would be surprised if audiences weren't also reminded of Carnival of Souls (the doomed heroine, inexorably drawn to an abandoned location), Mulholland Drive (a damaged woman's delusional reinvention of characters and events), and even a hint of Konami's second installment in the Silent Hill series, populated by self-destructive penitents trapped in their own private purgatories.

Very much in keeping with Ludlow's elegiac flavor is James Barry's original music. It is not the typical fare of no-budget independent works, and adds tremendously to the film's emotional impact. Rounding out the cast is Elissa Dowling (in two roles), and Ned Christensen as Steve, the silent, stalking Shade of Krista's subconscious.

Stacie has been reviewing and discussing films for the better half of a decade, now. She's absorbed an uncanny, almost encyclopedic knowledge of suspense and horror, and amassed legions of fans in the process. Her critical aim is true. And so here's the thing: unlike your typical backyard-zombie movie, fledgling filmmaker, Stacie had a HUGE task ahead of her. How do you craft a story - with no budget to speak of - that's going to satisfy genre fans who've seen everything? More importantly, how will you maintain credibility as a connoisseur to such a jaded and sophisticated audience? Today's fans have seen every cliché, every cheap convention and lazy contrivance there is, and this genre is rife with them, even the old pros like Romero and Hooper have fallen prey to them. We complain loudly and bitterly over the crap that tries to pass for art, and the trite shorthand that usurps true storytelling. "I could make a movie ten times better than this!" we say with the contempt that attends absolute certainty. With this in mind, the pressure to make something that isn't an exercise in hackneyed futility must have been monumental for Miss Ponder.

It's with great appreciation and relief that I'm able to say that not only did she show courage in the attempt, but incredible deftness in the execution. Ludlow is a triumph.

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