If you consider yourself a horror film aficionado, you probably claim to support independent horror films. You probably know, at least in theory, that it is precisely the constraints of a meager budget that has historically driven innovation in this genre. You probably also know, somewhere deep inside your little subversive heart, that if you want to be a supporter of independent horror and provide the sort of community where such innovation can flourish, you have to actually watch and pay for independent horror films!
Lucky for you, Brain Damage Films has just released Expressway To Your Skull, a micro-budget psychedelic horror thriller debut from the very promising independent filmmaker Michael Okum. This film really makes the most of its resources: compelling plot, talented acting, relatable dialogue, and creative cinematography with tight editing.
“A gripping horror film, Expressway to Your Skull follows Ed and Amy, a thrill-seeking couple in their 20s as they steal away from the city to the backwoods for a spur-of-the-moment camping trip to cut loose and “expand their minds.” With a stash of drugs, backpacks and halfcocked enthusiasm, Ed and Amy hit the road… But soon the couple cross paths with a mysterious survivalist named Charlie. As their plans for a drug-hazed vacation turn sour, they instead find themselves fighting for their lives in a deranged, psychedelic-fueled death trip that blurs the line between reality and nightmares.”
I have to say, the above description, which I was given via press release, did not do this film justice. After reading it, I expected a couple of whoo-hoo, hot-but-terrible actors running through the woods yelling “Let’s get fucked up!” with cheesy trails effects, and some chainsaw-wielding beard-o in a trucker hat flailing his weapon around. What I saw instead was so much better. This film seems to use a dichotomy structure, a sort of light and dark mirroring of a series of events. It opens on the dark side: a woman, a man, money, a rape, a kidnapping (I was very impressed by the performance of Katie Royer, she manages to bring an overwhelming amount of vulnerability and emotion to her small part). This is juxtaposed with the light side: a woman and man, money, consensual and loving sex, a coerced (but consensual) camping trip. The central couple, Amy and Ed (played very well by Lindsay Atwood and Paul S. Tracy), have an undercurrent of anxiety and youthful shiftlessness about them that makes them very believable. Their dialogue is natural, and they have a level of chemistry and love that is rare in such low-budget films. This film takes time to build the characters of this couple and to lay the groundwork for the motivations of their careless actions that later get them into trouble. And guess what? It is totally believable that they are just out camping and wanting to take some mushrooms. Yep, this film just shows people doing something they often do when seeking recreation in a natural environment: drugs.
In fact, the drugs are used more as a clever plot device and not (as I feared would be the case) a replacement for plot. By the time they meet Charlie, our complex villain, it isn’t totally ridiculous that they would decide to go off through the woods with him for the promise of killer hallucinogens.
Charlie, played by the very expressive and effective Mark Aaron, offers an understandable villain. Frightening in his blind and arrogant delusions, as well as the obvious trauma and loss that fuels his need for such ludicrous self-inflation of perceived power, he is one human-sized pile of crazy shit that poor Amy and Ed step right into. Again, the hallucinogenic cinematography seeks to enhance the viewer’s empathy and show the fear and confusion of characters in a fight or flight situation trying desperately to pierce through the fog of an altered consciousness.
This is certainly one of the best horror films I have seen within its budgetary peers. I urge you to put down your tired and scratched copy of “Phantasm” and give this one a try. It is released on DVD on November 3rd, 2015 and will be available VOD on December 1st, 2015. For more info, please check out http://expresswaytoyourskull.com.