Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger thinks that chains can be sexy. Blood and self mutilation? Not so much.
Don't be afraid to love her
KatieBird *Certifiable Crazy Person's failure is both more interesting and more exasperating than most indy horror failures. Interesting, because the movie shows such earnest promise in its unapologetic attitude and dedicated acting performances. Exasperating, because KatieBird's failure could so easily have been avoided with simple sanity checks. (No pun intended.)
Facts of the Case
The adult KatieBird Wilkins (Helene Udy, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) comes home from her father's wake with her longtime family friend (and psychologist, and lover) Dr. Richardson (Todd Gordon, Point Blank). He implores her to talk about her relationship with her father, Merl (Lee Perkins, Fangoria: Blood Drive).
She does so, but only after chaining him to the bed and raping him. What follows is a harrowing account of young KatieBird (Nicole Jarvis) and teen (Taylor M. Dooley) KatieBird's relationship with Daddy Wilkins. Let's just say they didn't bake cookies and go on fishing trips.
It is unfortunate that I have to anchor this review around a stylistic choice, but writer/director/editor Justin Paul Ritter has forced the issue. KatieBird is composed entirely, and I do mean entirely, in shifting windowpanes. Sometimes there is one windowpane, sometimes there are four. Sometimes the panes are at the top of the screen; sometimes the bottom. There may be different actors shown from different angles, or different actors shown from the same angle, or the same actor shown from different angles, or the same actor shown from the same angle. (That latter style makes KatieBird feel like one of those vanishing mirror tunnels in the funhouse.)
Split screen techniques, when used judiciously and with a clear intent, can enhance the viewing experience. Even when used poorly, they can lead to interesting coincidences. Yet I'm hard pressed to think of any movie that has successfully framed its entirety in constantly shifting panes. The technique as used in this movie is not so much disorienting as it is retina-scrapingly annoying.
Ritter's decision is particularly inexplicable because KatieBird is a dialogue-heavy character study, not primarily a visual tale. Character studies are served by careful reflection on the character in question (hence the term "studies"). KatieBird is more like character Cliff's Notes with the pages cut up and scattered around the table. Given the lack of a discernable, story-based reason for this technique, I can only assume that Ritter is saying "This film is defined by being different from other films."
To add insult to injury, the aspect ratio seems to be 1.85:1, but KatieBird doesn't employ the whole frame. Even in the brief, merciful oases where one shot dominates the screen, a thick black border exists. As best I can tell, KatieBird's aspect ratio is 1.85:1 non-anamorphic set within a matte-like frame that is also 1.85:1 non-anamorphic. As a result of these shenanigans, I spent the first third of the film pausing to double-check my video settings just to make sure I wasn't accidentally forcing the DVD into a weird aspect ratio.
This whole mess (and it is a mess, as admitted even by those on IMDb who love the film) is a shame because the shot composition and execution is quite good, particularly when compared against its cohort of independent horror flicks. The brief snippets of uninterrupted footage show capable acting performances. I feel for budding cinematographer Josh Fong. Had the split-pane technique been used to accentuate KatieBird's disintegrated mental state in key scenes, it would have been a hundredfold more effective.
The extreme style and frustrated promise extends to Daniel Iannantuono's original score, which is included as an extra. This is another case where a simple exercise in judicious restraint would have worked wonders. The majority of Iannantuono's score is a deft blend of sonic metal with other music styles and off-kilter sounds. But each and every song is impaled by a piercing, low-level harmonic that hangs in the air like an ignored smoke alarm. Imagine a concert where Eddie Van Halen picked up a guitar, pinged out a harmonic, handed the twanging guitar to a roadie who hooked it up to a monitor, and then went on with the show. You might enjoy the concert, but the whole time you'd be thinking "I sure wish they'd cut the mike on that damn guitar." This aggravating harmonic might have incited tension or a nervous edge in key scenes. When used as a constant instead of a highlight, it permanently burns out part of our aural complex.
I wish I could trivialize the impact of those visual and aural decisions, but together they dominate the movie. Everything in KatieBird is subservient to the jumbled split screen and the infinite guitar twang.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Aside from that, KatieBird is reasonably successful. Because of its structure and material, KatieBird lives or dies by its acting; the small cast delivers.
Lee Perkins is the anchor. He presides over his scenes like a quiet executioner waiting to deal a death blow. With rare exception he doesn't do anything overtly threatening; intense menace radiates from him nonetheless. Perkins is as watchable as bad guys get. The various incarnations of KatieBird are remarkably cohesive in look and acting ability, which is a testament to all three actresses. Little KatieBird, Nicole Jarvis, is so believable it's eerie. Teen KatieBird Taylor M. Dooley, who has to carry much of the picture, emits pheromones of violent, depraved sexuality from within an unassuming shell. Her budding sexuality is eclipsed only by her passionate fascination with torture and killing.
This trio is interspersed with scenes of the Helene Udy/Todd Gordon dynamic. Their scenes are less satisfying from an acting standpoint because they aren't allowed to connect. Acting is largely about reactions, and we don't see any reactions from these two because they're never in the same windowpane. My (admittedly tenuous) handle on KatieBird comes mostly from the younger versions because they are allowed to interact with other people. Udy is excised from any actor-to-actor contact. That said, the petite, comely Udy does a convincing job as a dominating powerhouse of torture and menace, while Gordon does the best he can to deal with being a hapless victim without much wiggle room.
Gordon and Udy engage in several sex scenes that are chaste in terms of skin, but psychologically intense. KatieBird gets turned on by raping a guy chained to a bed that was stained with his own blood. I found these scenes erotic, though not in a gentle, nurturing sense. Rather, they show a woman fully enjoying her sexuality, no matter what the costs to her partner. These scenes reveal the heart of KatieBird's character; they also say something about Dr. Richardson, who perhaps represents our fascination with violence and the cult mentality that surrounds some killers.
This fine acting is a strong point in a tale that has been told before, and with more success. I once reviewed the independent horror film Scrapbook, and in the intervening years I've decided that I didn't give it enough credit. Like KatieBird *Certifiable Crazy Person, Scrapbook tells the non-glamorized story of a serial killer and a victim. Yet Scrapbook knows when to linger in the moment and let human depravity speak for itself. I left Scrapbook feeling profoundly drained, which is appropriate after an intimate journey into the psyche of a sick killer. KatieBird wants to tell a similar story, but didn't connect with me in the same way.
Aside from the aforementioned visual style, pacing is the primary culprit. If one chapter's worth of Katie stalking an unlucky kid through crunching leaves is tense, will three chapters' worth be more so? If extracting one tooth from a victim while blood spurts all over the place is sickening, will ten teeth and a gallon of blood be sicker?
Ritter seems to think so. At the same time, his unflinching devotion to his specified story arc reveals that he's a director with his own compass and an absolutely unswayable sense of purpose. These qualities enabled Ritter to create an off-kilter, unsympathetic film and get it released. These same qualities will perhaps enable him to create a wholly successful film—if Ritter can acquiesce to conventions of cinematic storytelling.
You'll hear much from Ritter in the special features, which Heretic Films has provided in abundance in this stacked release. The extras are one facet of KatieBird I can unequivocally get behind. There are liner notes, a full commentary, trailers, and two featurettes. Let's not forget the aforementioned soundtrack CD, which is a fantastic extra that big studio releases would do well to emulate. Ritter's indomitable attitude is on full display in the featurette "Movies, NOT Excuses." Ritter advises you to get off your ass, stop watching television, and go follow your dream. Holding aside the paradox of a director admonishing his audience to leave, Ritter's diatribe is bemusing and invigorating at the same time. Though I'm quite comfortable on my couch and satisfied at my lifetime level of creative output, I can applaud Ritter for making this impassioned speech. He is lower-key in the commentary, allowing his cast to shine. Their banter and insight are both worth listening to. This isn't deep criticism, but it is an involving and well-paced track. The liner notes echo the featurette, but read smugger than they sound. Finally, a makeup featurette shows the copious syrup and latex that go into splatter films.
Heretic Films provides a nice package (though anamorphic video is a must for a DVD like this) and the actors show up. Ritter crafts a new twist on a thoroughly trodden genre, even if his pacing could use a tweak or two. The young cast and crew's enthusiasm shows up on screen. If not for the egregious overuse of split screen and the interminable twang that spears the soundtrack, KatieBird *Certifiable Crazy Person would have been an outstanding debut film. As it stands, it is a debut film that reveals hints of promise.
KatieBird *Certifiable Crazy Person is sentenced to incarceration in a facility for the criminally insane, but she is allowed visitation rights.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Heretic Films
• "Movies NOT Excuses" Featurette
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