Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The Bagman

Director: Rae Fitzpatrick
Writer: Beverly Beaton
Producer: Stephanie Beaton
Cast: Stephanie Beaton, Paul Zanone, Katrina McCullough
Country: USA
Year of release: 2002
Reviewed from: UK disc (Hardgore)

I met Stephanie Beaton about ten years ago on the set of Elisar Cabrera’s film Witchcraft X: Mistress of the Craft. I found her to be a very nice lady and we have exchanged the occasional e-mail since then. I knew that in 2002 she launched her own production company, Silver Moon Productions, with a low-budget horror film called The Bagman. I didn’t know that the film was released in the UK in 2005 on the Hardgore label.

Well now I’ve finally had a chance to watch The Bagman and I always try to find something positive to say about films made by my friends, but in my heart of hearts I have to admit that this is ... not good. Sorry Steph. The acting is wooden, the script (by Steph’s mum) is clichéed, the direction is flat, the sound is awful, the production values are threadbare and some specific aspects of the film are just head-scratchingly poor. Oh, I feel awful about this, I do.

A prologue finds five ‘schoolkids’ chasing and tormenting a sixth youngster. They all wear matching red sweaters and black trousers or mini-skirts, presumably as some sort of ersatz school uniform, but the problem is that these are all adults. Steph was thirty when she made this and while she could pass for mid-twenties, there’s no way she (or any of the other actors) could pass for teenagers in a prologue set ten years before the main story.

The ‘kid’ they’re chasing, Jack Marshall, has some sort of hideous, deformed face which is not explained until much, much later in the movie. Ringleader Randy somehow corners him at a very shallow stream where Kirk, Margaret and Token Black Guy Henry urge him on but Sue tells him to stop. Jack struggles and scratches Randy’s cheek (raising two serious red gashes - boy, he’s got some fingernails on him). Enraged, Randy does what anyone would do in that situation. He produces from somewhere a small hessian sack with a sad mouth painted on it, sticks it over Jack’s head, ties some string loosely round the bag and pushes the other boy’s face into an inch or two of water - while Kirk, Margaret and TBG Henry stare in mute shock and Sue screams frantically but makes no attempt to intervene. Eventually Jack’s body goes limp and drifts away along the shallow brook. Randy actually pisses on the dead boy and then swears everyone to silence, insisting that by not stopping him they are all complicit in the murder.

Flash forward ten years and Sue (Beaton) is living with struggling artist boyfriend Matt (Brent McEwan: Shallow Ground), who shags her, rather dangerously, on a gas cooker. Fortunately for Steph’s arse, the hob-ring that accidentally lights is not the one she’s sitting on. But they subsequently have an argument and Sue leaves. She actually returns to her home town, which she left five months earlier, but we only find this out much later so for all we know she could have just moved next door, especially as her new house looks identical to the one she was sharing with Matt.

On Friday the 13th, her old school gang are planning to get together to watch scary movies, along with a couple named Steve (Mikul Robins, who has made seven films with Steph including Witchcraft IX and XI) and Tonya (prolific bondage porn star Lorelei Shannon). I got the impression from the dialogue that Steve is somebody’s cousin but Tonya has the same surname as Margaret (according to the credits) so maybe they’re the cousins. Anyway, TBG Henry (Alonzo F Jones, who was an inmate in The Shawshank Redemption) isn’t going to be there because we saw him, drunk as a skunk, staggering home and meeting a large figure with a hessian sack over his head, on which a smiley face has been painted. Next thing we know, Henry is trussed up in a lock-up somewhere being tortured and killed.

Sue doesn’t like scary movies - or scary anything - so she declines to join her pals for the horror film evening. Thoughtful Margaret (Katrina McCullough) gets round this by breaking into Sue’s house dressed as the Bagman and scaring her into a feint. Yes, she’s dressed exactly like the psycho that nobody has yet seen or heard of, except with the sad-face sack instead of the smiley one. Okay, yes, last time they all saw Jack Marshall he had a sack over his head but he also had a red school jumper and black school trousers. How does Margaret know that he now - if he is somehow still alive - wears a check shirt and light brown trousers?

Sue calls the police to say she can hear an intruder and they tell her to leave the house so she opens the door - and walks straight into a terrifying (well, no, frankly silly) figure who looks vaguely like the boy that her friend murdered and urinated on a decade earlier.

When Sue regains consciousness, she’s in a car with Margaret and Kirk (Wil Matthew), who had tapped her phone and pretended to be the police - that’s a true friend - and she simply laughs the whole thing off, as you would. She even agrees to the scary movie viewing evening after all. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen a less believable piece of character development. Oh, so you made me think that a vengeful psychotic spirit from my past was trying to kill me, while also removing my only hope of rescue, just in order to forcibly make me spend an evening doing something I have repeatedly told you will upset me. Oh... you guys!

So Sue settles down to watch some unspecified horror movies with Kirk, Margaret, Steve and Tonya. Henry’s not there because he’s dead and Randy (Paul Zanone who subsequently co-wrote Evil in the Bayou and Tales from the Grave for/with Steph) is also absent for no apparent reason (in an entirely pointless sequence later we see him picking up an obvious transvestite in a bar, taking him/her home then kicking him/her out when the truth becomes evident). When Kirk, Margaret and Sue go to the store for some more popcorn, Steve and Tonya head upstairs for some sexy fun but they are gruesomely despatched by the ‘Bagman’ (as the character is never called). Wait a minute - they weren’t even in the prologue so why is he killing them?

The other three return to find a note saying that Steve and Tonya have gone to the cemetery. Oh yes, a night in the cemetery was the second part of this fun evening that nervous, sensitive Sue agreed to when she realised that the terrifying kidnap ordeal through which her friends had put her was just a joke.

Anyway, yada yada yada, Margaret and Kirk fall victim to the Bagman and Sue confronts Randy who admits that he was responsible for the fire that mutilated Jack Marshall and killed Jack’s mother all those years ago - a revelation that has no impact whatsoever because this is the first mention of any such fire. It’s something to do with Jack being his half-brother or stepbrother or something and the film ends with Randy killed and then Jack locking himself in a shed and setting fire to the place as Sue stands outside crying. To be honest, what little plot exists in The Bagman pretty much falls apart towards the end, and then it all just stops without any sense of redemption or salvation.

And it goes without saying that there is no explanation of how Jack survived when Randy drowned him in the stream, how he has remained alive for the last ten years (in his old house which looks in good condition for something that burned down) without anyone noticing, or why he has chosen this moment to dress up in a version of the sack that was used that day and track down and murder all his tormentors and anyone who watches movies with them. Although the plot is mostly a predictable I-Know-What-You-Did-Ten-Summers-Ago template, one unexpected plot twist is that Steph turns out to be an FBI agent. Actually it’s not totally unexpected because her red hair and dark brown trouser suit makes her look a lot like Dana Sculley, and that can’t be accidental. Randy is supposed to be a detective now (I think) but if he can’t spot that the person in a two-dollar joke-shop bubble-perm wig is a fella, I don’t have much confidence in his ability to solve crimes.

Characterisation in The Bagman is wafer-thin where it exists at all. Margaret is shrill, Randy is a slimeball, Henry is black. That’s about it. The plot, such as it is, is an nth generation clone of Friday the 13th, devoid of interest, tension or suspense thanks to bland direction, risible dialogue and stiff acting. But even worse than the film’s artistic shortcomings are the technical ones. Shot on cheap video with flat lighting and dreadful audio (which sounds like it was recorded using the camera mic although three different boom operators are credited), the whole thing looks appallingly amateur. It was obviously shot in people’s real houses and you know, there’s nothing wrong with filming in your own home as long as you dress that home up a bit to look like it belongs to one of your characters. Otherwise, you are just shooting, literally, a home movie.

Steph, who is credited as both producer and executive producer, has made four subsequent films through her company Silver Moon Productions: Evil in the Bayou, Bloody Bender’s Return and a brace of anthology pictures, Tales from the Grave and Tales from the Grave Volume 2: Happy Holidays. Acting roles for other people during the last few years have included Tortured Soul 3 and Blood Gnome, bringing her filmography to more than thirty pictures in ten years. Beverly Beaton helped her daughter on all five Silver Moon films in one capacity or another - writing, acting, costumes etc - and sadly passed away in 2006, one day short of her 68th birthday.

Inside the Bagman costume is none other than Ron Ford (Dead Season, Deadly Scavengers), who directed Steph in Witchcraft XI, V-World Matrix, A Passion to Kill and The Crawling Brain. Jay Woelfel, director of Demonicus and Trancers 6, provided the music for The Bagman while another director, Jeff Leroy (Creepies, The Witch’s Sabbath and cinematography on Camp Blood and its sequel) handled the edit suite. Eric H Lasher, a jobbing stills photographer whose credits include The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, I’m Dangerous Tonight, Return of the Living Dead 3 and Crocodile, provided cinematography here though he was obviously hampered by using whichever tuppeny ha’penny video camera was available. Lasher also DP-ed the ‘second unit’ while Ron Ford DP-ed the ‘third unit’ which probably reflects more the patchwork schedule of the film rather than intensive simultaneous production.

This film’s director, Rae Fitzpatrick, has no other credits and is a pseudonym (or possibly the real name) of one of the participants - but as his/her true identity has never been revealed, I’ll maintain the secrecy in this review.

Actually, I should pause here to mention one extraordinary shot. After Sue feints at the sight of the ‘fake’ Bagman, Margaret pulls the sack off her head to reveal her identity to the audience and that shot is Completely Out Of Focus. It’s quite important to the story, if not actually vital to the plot, but the shot is just... blurred. It’s unbelievable. Did Lasher, Beaton et al not notice or not care? Sorry folks but that’s way beyond dodgy sound or shift-the-sofa-this-way set dressing. That’s embarrassing.

Here's what I really don't understand. If a low-budget film-maker (or their friend – or indeed, their mum) is writing their own script for their own film, it makes no sense to include in that script things which clearly won’t be feasible to film on the expected budget. Why make life hard for yourself? Two examples of cringeworthy cheapness stand out in this film which really should have been written out of the script rather than filmed in a way that highlights the $4.99 budget. In one scene we see the Bagman pushing a hand through a meat-grinder. Of course it’s a (realistic) rubber hand which can’t actually be pushed into the grinder – but there’s no meat coming out the other end. Similarly, in a flashback showing Randy as a boy splashing petrol around the Marshall house, there is very obviously no liquid coming out of the jerry-can because it’s being filmed in somebody’s living room and they don’t want water all over their soft furnishings. If I was being pedantic I would also point out that a calendar in the background of one scene clearly shows that the 13th of this month falls on a Saturday; that would be picky but on the other hand that’s the sort of detail that would cost precisely nothing to do right.

Parts of this film are truly silly but the whole thing is played completely straight and perhaps that’s the biggest flaw. A little nod or wink to the audience to let them know that it’s all a lot of fun might have taken the curse off some of the unavoidable (and, truth be told, avoidable) problems. I’m all for serious horror movies, Lord knows far too many are just scary comedies, but straight-faced horror needs the production values - and, crucially, the script - to make sure that the audience have nothing to laugh at. I’m afraid that The Bagman falls down on both counts.

I wanted to see The Bagman. I was really pleased to find a copy and I shuffled it straight to the top of the To Be Watched pile. But oh dear, it’s not good, not good at all. I’m sure Steph has learned from making this film and I trust that the subsequent Silver Moon pictures are each progressively better. This one, I think, is best forgotten.

With nothing to disturb the censors apart from some cheap gore effects and Beaton’s admittedly impressive breasts, The Bagman garnered only a 15 rating from the BBFC. Knowing that their target audience would be put off by that, Hardgore sneakily upped the disc’s rating to 18 by including some trailers which are actually more horrific than the feature. The full list of trailers - never mind the quality, feel the width - is: Aquanoids, The Attendant, The Bone Yard, Cannibal Dead: The Ghouls, Cannibal Detour: Hell’s Highway (just called Hell’s Highway on screen), Creepozoids, Cursed (in Japanese, unsubtitled!), El Chupacabra, Ghoul School, Charles Band’s Intruder, Nightmares Come at Night, The Stink of Flesh, Strange Behaviour (called Dead Kids on screen), Switch Killer, Thirst, Turkey Shoot, Vampires vs Zombies (which claims to be based on ‘Carmilla’ by JS LeFanu!) and The Zombie Chronicles.

It has to be said, sadly, that some of these trailers are better made and more entertaining than The Bagman itself. It is also worth commenting on the Hardgore sleeve which prominently bills the star as “Stephanie ‘Witchcraft X’ Beaton” as if that might make any difference. Did they realise that Witchcraft X, although it was shot in London, has never been released in the UK and has almost certainly never been seen by anyone in this country who doesn’t know Elisar Cabrera personally?

MJS rating: D
Review originally posted 3rd October 2007

No comments:

Post a Comment