Summer School (2006)
Starring Simon Wallace, Amy Cocchiarella, Ty Richardson, Lance Hendrickson
Directed by Ben Trandem
Charles runs a website that reviews horror movies. He has stayed up a bit too late trying to catch up on his work ala a horror movie marathon. In his rapid absorption of an endless series of dark delicacies, Charles has emerged the next day, the first day of summer school, in a bit of a mental flux. It would appear that Charles is slipping in and out of consciousness, and each time he does so he enters into a new nightmare, with each new nocturnal emission representing a different horror genre archetype.
As we travel with Charles down through this mental maelstrom, we learn things about him and the people within these dreams. The stories weave in and out of each other and form a solid, it not bizarre, narrative. There is a peeling of layers that takes us down through the meat of the fruit, exposing the flesh of the story details, and ultimately bringing us to an emotional core.
Summer School is the brainchild of Ben Trandem, who wrote all of the differing segments of the film, while directorial duties for each segment went to an assortment of directors. Alternating themes and directors, Summer School seems poised on the edge of being a disjointed mess, with storytelling gaps and visuals that are all over the place. Surprisingly, this is not the case. Summer School not only keeps itself glued together, but it succeeds in melding all of this into a wildly entertaining horror film that will provoke as much as it keeps the audience guessing.
The film was made for around 8,000 dollars but I never would have been able to guess that price tag given the look of the film. Directors of Photography Troy McCall and Mike Richardson have made the most of their meager monetary position. They stage and light each scene with real attention to each different situation. Yet, even with the different looks, there is a central color and lighting scheme that runs through the film. A few sequences stand out against type, but the transitions between the scenes are so effortless that we accept it readily. Never do we get a visual cannonball that jars us loose from the cinematic world we're led into.
Summer School is set almost completely inside of a school building, which means that the scenes of violence take place within classrooms and locker lined hallways. I hate to be the one to bring up the fact that we live in a Post-Columbine world, but here the discussion is urgently pertinent. It's very sad that we live in a time where a lot of people who see this film will think of all needless and pointless acts of brutality that have been perpetually plaguing our society as of late. The recent rash of school violence across the country is only going to ruin this film for some people. I empathize with the hardworking crew who made this film, as it's clear to me that it is not a message of hate or anger but rather love; that of the horror genre. Love of film. Love of storytelling. Nowhere in this film is there one moment where the filmmakers are trying to convey that any of this sort of violence is justified, nor ar they trying to glorify the violence. If you watch Summer School, you'll see that it actually cries out against such acts.
That being said, this film pulls no punches. There are moments where I was sitting in aghast at what was being played out before my eyes. The segments each have a name that defines the genre in which they exist. Although we do not know their titles till the end, each segment’s flavor is quickly defined. The palette the film pulls from is varied. We get creatures, cults, creepy hillbillies, and even a bit of exploitation; the obstacle course of terror that Charles has to navigate is insanely twisted.
Simon Wallace bears the brunt of the load here. As Charles, there is never a moment where he's not on screen. So much of the movies' success is hung on his shoulders that it would have been easy to break the neck of such a young, inexperienced actor, but as with everything else to do with Summer School, Simon’s performance here is nothing short of amazing. His disarming, charming presence gives way to terror, horror, and pain so effortlessly that I only have to wonder how long he will be gracing such small films with his presence before he is scooped up by a pricey agent, who will then warn him against ruining his career by stooping to horror roles.
In supporting roles are Tony Czech and Lance Hendrickson (NOT Lance Henrickson) as two troublemakers who happen to be Charles' friends. Such roles are easily ruined by either comic miscues by the actors, or over saturation into the script wherein they become annoying. Neither of these instances applies to Czech or Hendrickson. In an early scene where they are discussing "the band", they're able to pull off a Tenacious D homage with style, complete with the Jack Black-esque wit and snap-quick dialogue. This scene is the only cute aside they get in the film. They show a different range than Simon does in his performance; Simon has the luxury of pure reaction, Czech and Hendrickson have to not only react, but when called upon become antagonists as well. Not an easy transition, but in a film where we fade in and out of differing situations so easily, it's no wonder the actors are able to do so as effortlessly as they do.
I have to give a hearty bravo to the superb performances turned in by Ty Richardson. He tackles three different, intertwined roles in the film, and attacks each with a fevered gusto. His turns add a lot of the much needed layering to the stories being told. With Richardson’s unsettling devotion to the characters he's playing, it would appear that the rest of the cast had a seriously strong wall to sound off of. It adds layers to the world created on the screen.
For seconds, one can see the budget being stretched to its breaking point, but you really have to look. There are effects and scenes in the film that are stunning for such a small production. Digital effects that put much larger studios to shame, blood that looks real, and practical effects that play off as gooey as anyone could ask. I have to cut you in on a secret that I found out from the crew: in a sequence that called for a group of creatures to attack, there was only enough in the budget for one creature suit. The rest is all done in post production with editing and some digital work. I defy you to watch the film and point out to me where this digital wizardry was done. I have re-watched this scene several times and am still amazed at its craftwork.
Summer School has set a new standard for me, and, unfortunately for all other independent horror films, it is a sterling standard. I'm puzzled at how some people can take 20 times the amount of money that this production had and create something that's nowhere near this quality. I guess it all boils down to one thing: talent. Some people have it, and some people don't. Summer School presents hope in the midst of all of that fecal film matter flowing around out there. Quality production mixed with solid performances spinning a compelling story. How hard is that? How expensive is that? Obviously, all of it does not come at a monetary premium.
4 1/2 out of 5
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