By Natasha Samreny
South of Heaven carried far too much violence and gore for me to look past. Maybe enjoy isn’t the best word, but I had a hard time stomaching and therefore appreciating the film fully because of its nature. If you’re not a fan of such horror movies, even with beautiful design, cinematography and acting elements, don’t watch this.
In this film, Roy Coop (Adam Nee) comes home from the Navy ready to work on his novel and see his brother Dale (Aaron Nee). Instead, two vaudevillian thugs played by Thomas Jay Ryan and Jon Gries (Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite) who think he is Dale meet him at the door and hold him responsible for abducting a young woman Roy’s never heard of and holding her for ransom. They work for the girl’s father. While Roy pleads his innocence, the thugs beat him mercilessly and end the episode by starting to remove his fingers – at least one for each digit sent with the ransom notes to the hostage’s father—and signed in part by Roy’s own brother Dale.
Turns out the masochistic killer Mad Dog Mantee (Shea Whigham of Machete) is masterminding the plan and taking Dale along for the ride. They abduct Becky (Lena Gwendolyn Hill) in hopes that her father will pay a heavy ransom that they will split. When things go overboard and Mad Dog ends up killing a slew of people in the process, Dale becomes more hesitant and Mad Dog takes the lead with his crazy.
While the two fugitives are on the run, Roy is taken responsible by the two thugs in his brother’s place and every time they return to collect, he is left with less fingers, a weaker, more swollen head and more wretched sense of reality and broken understanding. Veronica (Elina Lowensohn) knocks on Roy/Dale’s door introducing herself as Dale’s friend also clueless as to his whereabouts but willing to help poor Roy. Turns out Veronica knows a lot more than she lets on. By the film’s end Roy becomes a broken, mutilated, reborn avenger on an unquestioning mission to recover what’s left of his life and his brother.
There were parts of the film where I sat entranced, listening to some ironically funny monologue or psychologically grabbing moment where the character was pondering his or her developing reality. Most of the cast are talented veterans. Whigham convinces of his ripped-up evil nature with the steadiness of his gazes, the way he holds himself and his ability to twist every opportunity to serve or care for someone into a reason to mess with their head.
Gries is fun to watch outside of his Uncle Rico role, especially in yet another colorful wardrobe. It’s so easy to believe in his character. Adam and Aaron Nee (siblings in real life, also worked on The Last Romantic) are believable as brothers in the film. There is a longing relationship developed onscreen through the editing and the emotions they conjure up, even without being onscreen together throughout the majority of the film. Lowensohn is exquisite and mesmerizing to hear with her quiet, measured tones and delivery.
The cinematography is beautiful. The colors, wardrobe and stylized design draw the audience in. But I just couldn’t get into the story, into the experience. While the horror got inside my head, I felt like I had to watch the movie from afar—like the actors were in their own dream world and I accidentally popped in a DVD of a cast and crew putting on a stage play that wasn’t meant to be seen outside of their close circle of theatre friends. Maybe writer and director J.L. Vara felt the blood and violence were necessary to the story. But much of it felt gratuitous to me and I was pushed away. I appreciated the artistic elements of the production, but this is a one-time watching gig for me.
The disc also includes a cast, and critic commentary audio track, as well as three short films by J.L. Vara that are interesting to watch. They also include the Nee brothers working in front of and behind the camera. I got into the first film Miserable Orphan starring Adam Nee, more than the feature film.