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Saturday, January 14, 2017


One of the joys of movie watching is discovering new (to me anyway) low-budget filmmakers with a knack for turning straw into gold.  Or at least making the straw look better.  1985's serial killer thriller MURDERLUST (like its Intervision DVD companion PROJECT NIGHTMARE) is very good straw. 

Here, two very independent filmmakers--writer/director Donald M. Jones and writer/producer James C. Lane--have joined their noteworthy talents together to concoct a viewing experience which, while not exactly something to write home about, is admirably well-rendered considering that the budget was around $30,000.  That includes shooting on 35mm film, which in the pre-digital days ate up budgets like Homer Simpson going through a box of donuts.

In their script, which was begun by Jones and completed by Lane, Eli Rich (THE JIGSAW MURDERS) plays Steve Belmont, whose activities at the local church (he teaches Sunday School and counsels troubled kids) mask the fact that he's a vicious serial killer in his spare time.

Steve actually leads a triple life, since in addition to these two sides of his personality there's a third--that of a surly working stiff whose real jobs are marred by extremely disrespectful and irresponsible behavior.  When he isn't planning his next kill or being Mr. Nice Guy at the church, he's telling off his boss, trying to cajole his landlord to extend his rent deadline, or soaking his straight-laced cousin Neil (Dennis Gannon) for loans and favors. 

Interestingly, it's the non-serial-killer stuff that MURDERLUST spends the most time on.  In fact, the film is more about how Steve struggles to maintain his everyday life and keep up his clean image at church than about his homicidal activities.  So those looking for blood and gore or a series of graphic, cinematic murders for their own sake will likely find much of this story rather slow going.  Maybe even boring.

But if you get caught up in Steve's story then that should be sufficiently involving.  His standing at church is threatened when a disturbed young girl accuses him of inappropriate touching (of which, surprisingly, he's innocent) and a chance encounter with a fellow member who professes her secret love for him (Rochelle Taylor as "Cheryl") has Steve thinking that maybe he has a chance for a normal life after all.

"Normal", however, just isn't in Steve's makeup, and he keeps returning to what he does best, which is luring women into his apartment or his "creep" van, dispatching them, and then driving them out to the desert to dump the bodies.  (He'll eventually be known by the press as the "Mohave Murderer.")

Jones stages the murder scenes pretty matter-of-factly, without lingering over any of the details or indulging in anything gratuitous.  It's the drama and suspense that occur between these scenes in this leisurely-paced character study that he and co-writer Lane are concerned with.  That, and delivering as good-looking a film as they can for their meager budget.

This is where Jones' knack for solid, economical staging comes to the fore, with the help of a highly capable cast led by the talented Rich as our anti-hero Steve.  Producer Lane also adds his valuable expertise in various technical aspects (camerawork, lighting, sets, etc.) as well as pulling off some beautiful helicopter shots in the desert which he describes in detail in his informative commentary track.

As you can probably guess, Steve's veneer of normalcy comes crashing down around him in the film's climax, as his true nature is revealed to a horrified Cheryl.  Even here, though, the main goal of MURDERLUST is to draw us into its story rather than shock us.

I found MURDERLUST to be involving, if perhaps a bit overly low-key, and was interested to see how it had been put together with such limited resources.  (Watching it along with Lane's detailed commentary is especially enlightening.)  Stalker-slasher fans in the mood to be thrilled and horrified, however, will likely deem it a yawner.

The second film on the disc is Jones and Lane's first feature effort, PROJECT NIGHTMARE, which finally found distribution in 1987 after some of their subsequent films had already been released.

With an even lower budget and a soundtrack in which all the dialogue was looped, the film manages to look better and, in my opinion, present a much more intriguing "Twilight Zone"-esque story.

The brash, outgoing Jon (Seth Foster) and the quiet, introspective Gus (Charles Miller) are two old friends whose camping trip in the mountains is interrupted when a strange, unknown force begins to chase them through the woods.

Seeking shelter in a secluded cabin, they meet Marcie (Elly Koslo), a strangely accomodating woman who not only trusts them implicitly on sight but quickly falls for Gus, whose feelings are guarded but mutual.

After a series of vain attempts to return to civilization, all three eventually find themselves fleeing the mysterious force and end up stranded in the desert.  Several events bordering on the supernatural occur, but after Gus finds his way down into an underground bunker, he discovers the true origin of all the strange occurrences that have been plaguing them.

Up to this point PROJECT NIGHTMARE has been having a ball leading us through a maze of inexplicable twists and turns which it must now labor to explain.  Thankfully, the ending isn't one of those copouts that leaves us hanging, and the resolution to all the mysteries consists of some pretty interesting science fiction for us to wrap our heads around.

Technically, the film is thoughtfully directed by Jones and is rife with great outdoor locations that are well-photographed in 35mm. The underground facility betrays its low budget at times but not really to the film's detriment.

A nightmare sequence early on is quite expertly conceived and edited, ending dramatically with a series of still shots timed to a pounding heartbeat.

With a combination of "Twilight Zone", "The Outer Limits", and, according to Lane in his commentary track, FORBIDDEN PLANET, the story manages to maintain our interest throughout.  This is helped in no small measure by a very capable cast.

Despite playing second fiddle to MURDERLUST on this Intervision double-feature disc (whose bonus features consist of the two James Lane commentary tracks and a MURDERLUST trailer), I consider PROJECT NIGHTMARE the more interesting and rewarding of the two features.  Together, they make for one very worthwhile DVD which I found richly entertaining.

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