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Sunday, July 23, 2017

BENDER -- DVD Review by Porfle

You might think a Western about America's first family of serial killers would be a hootin' and hollerin' free-for-all of frontier gore, played as much for laughs as for queasy thrills.

But first-time director and co-writer John Alexander had a more interesting vision for the fact-based BENDER (2016, Candy Factory Films), making it look like a series of stark Matthew Brady photographs brought to solemn, melancholy life with muted colors and even more muted mental and emotional turmoil seething below the surface of its severely odd characters.

The Kansas prairie of 1873 seems endless and capable of swallowing up the unwary traveller.  This appears to have happened to several patients and acquaintances of Dr. York (Jon Monastero), who sets out in search for them one day and ends up at the tiny Bender home in the middle of nowhere. 

While Alexander directs all his actors to speak with a stiff formality that makes them seem odd to begin with, there's something exceedingly wrong about the Benders despite their initial pretense of civility. 

Ma (Leslie Woodies) draws Dr. York in with the promise of a meal, but it's daughter Kate (Nicole Jellen), a strange, almost supernatural girl (she claims to be a "healer" and a "seer"), who intrigues the mild-mannered doctor with her ethereal beauty and knowing, almost seductive demeanor.

Kate's taciturn little brother is a peculiar enough little sprout himself, though nothing compared to the old man--Pa Bender is veteran actor James Karen (RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) at his most gloriously unpleasant, giving a whole new meaning to the word "grizzled." It's one of his best roles ever, and he's obviously having a ball with it.

What happens next is shocking, with an otherwise normal scenario taking an abrupt turn into the utterly demented.  And still, BENDER doesn't descend into the expected exploitation fare, keeping its restrained Old West ambience in uneasy juxtaposition to the horrors occurring beyond the knowledge of an inquisitive sheriff (Buck Taylor playing another of his wonderfully authentic Western characters) and a concerned town mayor (Bruce Davison, WILLARD, DISPLACEMENT).

Even when a doozy of a plot twist rears its head late in the story, things continue along a slow, deliberate course that unhurriedly plays itself out until a curiously understated but satisfying ending caps the tale off in suitably morbid fashion.

The overall mood is a richly evocative sort of prairie Gothic with almost a hint of Lovecraft adding a dark undercurrent to the frontier trappings.  Even the scenes set in a nearby town, where longtime fave Linda Purl (MAID OF HONOR) plays one of Dr. York's clinging patients, betray a general sense of unease and emotional malady among its wary denizens.

Absorbing and ultimately rewarding for the patient viewer, the stylishly-photographed BENDER takes its familiar, atmospheric Old West setting and infuses it with the perverse and strange, showing us what goes on behind the closed doors of the "Little Abattoir on the Prairie." 

Tech Specs
Type: DVD/Digital/HD
Running time: 75 min.
Rating: N/A
Genre: Horror/Thriller
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Audio: 5.1 surround
Closed captioned
Street date: Aug. 1, 2017


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