Archive for April, 2012

Review of “Family Secret”

Posted in Movie reviews on April 18, 2012 by Peter S


“Family Secret” is the 2011 offering from filmmaker Geno McGahee, Xposse Productions, and Webhead Entertainment. The film is about a recently deceased grandmother who apparently comes back from the grave and starts killing off her family members. Her grandson, Geno, is thrust into the center of it all as he tries to uncover the true reason for the killings.

Story-wise, the film is a slasher and giallo combination. I know that slashers and giallos are closely related, but they do have basic differences. In a slasher film, you know who the killer is and the reason for the killing spree (the backstory) is established near the beginning of the film. Most of it is about revealing the survivor and his/her connection to the killer. In a giallo, you don’t know who the killer is and several suspects are introduced throughout the film. The majority of it is about revealing the identity of the killer and his/her backstory.

The reason I consider “Family Secret” to be a slasher/giallo combo is that it weaves in and out of both sub-genres, successfully. You get the slasher killings but you also have the mysterious elements of a giallo. If you need a specific frame of reference, think of the film as equal parts John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava, and Roman Polanski. As always, McGahee tells an in-depth story and, in that sense, “Family Secret” works very well.

However, my main criticism is that there seemed to be an emotional disconnect throughout the entire film. I feel that this created an imbalance and it took away from the overall work. I realize that everyone worked hard on the production and I am not faulting any specific actor or crew member.  Rather, there are three “global” reasons for the disconnect. Mind you, I didn’t want the emotional drama of a soap opera. I only wanted what was necessary to flesh-out the characters and make them real.

First, I thought there were too many “main” characters. I recognize that McGahee was trying to establish possible suspects for the killer and he was also exploring the dysfunctional relationships in that family, but some of the characters blended together and it became a little confusing. Most of the characters had a sketchy moral background and it got to the point where everyone was a possible suspect. I think that the film would have worked better (especially in the first half) if only a few characters were defined and were made unique, in regard to one another. Those family relationships could have been explored more effectively and I feel it would have created a stronger emotional component to the film (a lot of potential there).

For example, the character of Geno was one of the more distinct and memorable characters because he was clearly established as the peacekeeper, the rational one, and the problem-solver of the family. Once he was defined, some ambiguity was introduced and the character became a plausible suspect for the killings. I wanted to see more of that type of process, albeit with less characters.

Second,  I feel that the set design could have been used more for defining and clarifying characters. I realize that there are budget and time constraints, but I thought that there were a lot of missed opportunities for sculpting characters and creating atmosphere for the overall film. I believe that this also would have fostered more emotional connectivity because everyone may have been more “in-character” if the surrounding environment encouraged that.

One standout example of this was Geno’s work cubicle. Yes, Geno was a well-written and defined character but I also felt that he wasn’t fleshed out and made real (with emotion and depth). His cubicle was a prime opportunity for making him real and I point this out because his cubicle was bare/gray and his computer screen was always blank. Some clippings from Geno’s past work – maybe about the child molester investigation – could be hanging up. Maybe there could be some past-due utility bills laying on his desk, implying that he sacrifices his personal needs for his family and work. Maybe he could have a weird message in his email about conspiracies, etc. Maybe some generic, safe pictures of trees and landscapes could show that he is a status-quo guy, which would set up the fact that he needs to take charge, put his foot down, step out of his comfort zone, and “rock the family boat” so to speak. As you can see, there were many set-design possibilities, for that scene and others.

In all fairness, there were a few instances where small aspects of set design (intentional or not) made a huge impact. In one scene, early-on in the film, two family members are talking in front of a mantle, in one of the homes. On the mantle, behind one character, there is a picture of an older man and it looks like the man is eerily looking over one character’s shoulder. The implication being: a family elder is keeping an eye on things and that character, whom he is watching, is a servant to the watchful eye. Another scene is when Geno and another character go to the grandfather’s house. On the kitchen wall there is something that looks like an eye chart (you know, with the letters gradually getting smaller). Again, it was a small thing but it added a little mystery to the grandfather character and also added some “cryptic” atmosphere to the overall film.

Third, I felt that the characters all delivered very interesting dialogue, but that dialogue wasn’t delivered emotionally. Most of the characters’ acting/presence did not fit the dialogue or the overall scene and this is one of the main reasons for the emotional disconnect of the film. Overall, I felt there was too much dialogue and it would have been better if less was said and more was expressed, through acting and presence. Throughout the film, actors would describe an emotion by saying something like, “hey, you can’t talk to me like that. I’m part of this family”  but they wouldn’t convey that emotion. Instead of saying “hey, you can’t talk to me like that”, I think it would have been better – for the scene and the overall film – if that line was dropped and the “hey…” anger/defensiveness was expressed in the “I’m…” line. In other words, all of the “hey…” feeling would be expressed through tone of voice, body language, and facial expression while the actor said the line “I’m part of this family”.

Before I go on, I do want to point out one scene that worked extremely well and stuck in my mind. This scene contained the three things that I wanted more of, in the film. In the scene, Geno’s female co-worker is hitting on him and basically asking him to cheat on his wife. The boss hears this and fires the girl. She runs out to the parking lot and the sex offender (that Geno investigated in the past) starts harassing her. Geno runs up and defends her, implying-but-not-saying that he won’t cheat on his wife but he does care about the girl as a human being. He wishes her well and offers to help her if she needs anything. The scene closes with her embracing him and the camera focuses on her face, over Geno’s shoulder. In that strange moment, Geno finds a true “family” relationship that he never found in his real family. I might be reading into it, but this scene is a great example of what McGahee, the crew, and the actors can do. It was one of the high points of the film and it said a lot without actually saying it in dialogue. Great scene.

Despite those three issues, I felt the movie really “kicked-into-gear” in the second half. I enjoyed the design/look of the old-lady killer and McGahee’s musical score employed an effective killer motif – very much in the style of John Carpenter. In fact, all of the musical cues were spot-on and supported the scenes – McGahee is quite good at pairing music with film.

The special effects were another strong point and all looked pretty good. Some on-camera effects, some off-camera, and some quick cut-shots were used, but the blood and gore looked very real. The “killer” aspect of the film really came together in the bowling alley scene, where it was pure slasher. This harkened back to 1980s “party” slashers where the killer was targeting groups of victims in an enclosed area, rather than picking them off one by one in various locations (Halloween II, Nightmare on Elm St. 2, Popcorn, My Bloody Valentine, etc). That part was a lot of fun.

Aside from the sets, the external locations (got to see some of the Massachusetts area) and the outside/night shots were great. I enjoyed the view of the church, which was similar to the imposing image of the funeral home in the Phantasm films. Director of Photography John Golden framed all the shots very well, the lighting was good, and the multiple camera angles really worked during character interaction. Also, kudos to skillful editing by Forris Day Jr. (who also played Geno). Because of their attention to detail, I thought that this was one of McGahee’s best filmed and edited works.

Anyway, “Family Secret” has a great story and solid production, but I don’t feel that it totally reached its full potential. McGahee and the Xposse crew have progressed and the production aspects of their films have gotten better, but the characters, set design, and dialogue need to be more in-balance with those stronger elements. I did enjoy watching “Family Secret” and I am looking forward to watching it again for the DVD commentary and special features. It’s definitely worth watching and I think fans of slashers, giallos, and conspiracy films will appreciate it. For more information on the film, visit and

Review and Quick Byte by Peter Syslo

An Interview with Jim Haggerty

Posted in interviews on April 8, 2012 by Peter S

Recently, I got a chance to ask filmmaker Jim Haggerty a few questions about his upcoming films and about his company, Yellow Ape Productions. Actually, Jim can say it better than I can in my clumsy introduction, so I’ll hand the blog over to him for a few minutes. Here is the interview:

PS: Jim, it’s great to talk with you again and thanks for the interview. It looks like 2012 will be another busy year for you and the crew at Yellow Ape Productions. Could you tell us about your upcoming projects and your recent DVD releases on Tempe?

JH: Well, the good folks at Tempe Video have just put FROM THE INSIDE and IS THIS A JOKE? into wide release which is very exciting – I never felt those films found the audience they could have, but that’s because they were only available at our website. And in April we will be premiering the all new WHEN DEATH CALLS starring my old friend Suzi Lorraine and the great Tina Krause. So it is an exciting time.

PS: I read that you are working on your first short film, for the festival circuit?

JH: Well, it’s written and I’m very happy with the script. I’ve discovered a wonderful actress who is perfect for the lead role named Risa Cohen. But that’s as far as we are with it. We have to finish casting and shoot it, but I don’t have anything scheduled yet. But I think it’s the kind of film that we will get some festival attention with. It’s a bit of a departure, it’s very character-driven and serious. Can’t wait to do it.

PS: Your most recent film is the horror anthology “When Death Calls”. Without giving away any secrets, could you tell us a little about the stories in the film?

JH: The stories are all pretty cool and they really run the gamut of horror styles, I think. It feels to me more like a mini horror movie festival. There’s a monster movie, a slasher movie, a dark comedy – a bunch of different styles pulled together.

PS: What draws you to the anthology format?

JH: Well, it gives you some variety – it’s not like week after week you’re telling the same story with the same characters and the same actors. You shoot a short segment for a few days, then you get to delve into something completely different. Like sketch comedy, it’s a like treat bag – you’re always excited as to what will come out next!

PS: How did the shoot for “When Death Calls” compare to the shoot for your other anthology film, “Grave Danger”?

JH: Well, we’ve certainly come a long way since GRAVE DANGER, so it’s a much more polished affair. Originally we were going to do a sequel to GRAVE DANGER, but for various reasons we decided WHEN DEATH CALLS should have it’s own identity. Though fans of GRAVE DANGER will notice one or two recurring characters, wink wink!

PS: “When Death Calls” stars the lovely Suzi Lorraine (who also starred in “Witchmaster General”) and the equally lovely scream-queen Tina Krause. Tell us about the casting process of “When Death Calls” and how both Suzi and Tina became involved.

JH: Well, Suzi is always a pleasure to work with and always an asset on screen. We were thrilled to work with her again. Tina came on board last – we had a role that she would be right for and I ended up getting in contact with her, so I asked her if she would do it. And I was delighted she did it since I’m such a fan and she was so great to work with. Apart from that, a lot of the casting was done for a different project called THE HOTEL KILLER which we were unable to do at this point for various reasons. So we shifted gears at the last minute to do what was originally going to be GRAVE DANGER 2 and utilized a lot of the people we’d cast in that film like Nathalie Bryant, Pooya Mohseni, Darlene McCullogh – as well as our old friends like Jae Mosc, Rebecca Rose McCain, Robert Lincourt, and Stephen Alan Wilson. And what a great cast we came out with.

PS: Along with Suzi, you are also working with a lot of the actors from your previous films such as Jae Mosc, Robert Lincourt, etc. After 10 years of working with some actors, what is the working relationship like and what have you learned, as a filmmaker, from your actors?

JH: That’s a good question. It really varies from person to person. Some I’m very close friends with, others I only see on set – it’s a very business-only relationship, which is fine. I certainly like all of my returning actors, and they keep coming back so they probably don’t hate me (laughs). And even if they do, by coming back they must respect what I do to come back. But I think everyone likes me, I just don’t see them all socially. But I’m hard to know on the set, I think – I tend to be very quiet when working on a film. Not to be rude, but my mind is going in so many different directions, I can’t really be too social. But I like to think we’re all friends to varying degrees.

PS: I read that you have been working with an expanded crew. Your wife Susan is editing and you have a production assistant and cinematographer/lighting director. Also, you have reconnected with the composer who worked on some of your previous films. Could you tell us more about the new additions to the Yellow Ape team?

JH: Well, my wife Susan is always a big help. It’s tough for her because it’s not really her passion, but thankfully she is so supportive and so talented as an editor. Of course my right hand man Dennis Newman who’s been with us since GRAVE DANGER is always invaluable – and has developed into something of a good actor in recent films.

PS: Was it strange letting others handle those tasks that you used to do?

JH: It’s always odd relinquishing control when you started out being kind of a one-man act. But it feels good to have help and to be able to rely on people and trust them.

PS: Now that you are able to focus more on writing, directing, and producing has it changed your approach to filmmaking?

JH: Well, I’ve always focused on these things. I think the approach changes the more you grow and learn. And I’ve learned from all of my films. And I’m pleased to say we’ve grown and improved each time.

PS: “Is This a Joke?” encapsulates your sense of humor and your comedic side. What were some of your influences on the film?

JH: It was really an attempt to create an old-fashioned ‘dirty joke’ movie from the 70’s – these were a little-known genre where actors performed old dirty jokes as skits. And I think we really captured it – the jokes we selected, the performances, the look of the film, the sound effects, the music. I’m quite proud of it, it’s a lot of fun. And I love that when we did the screening it went over well with the audience. Comedy is tough to do, so I’m glad it worked. But it was interesting that some of the stuff I didn’t think was that funny got the biggest laughs and things that I thought were hysterical didn’t get as big a response. That’s why comedy is tough.

PS: Looking back on “From the Inside”, how do you feel about the film now? I know that it was a passion project for years and honestly, I think it is one of your best films. Now that it has had a wider DVD release, what has the reaction been to it?

JH: Thank you, I am extremely proud of the film. Until WHEN DEATH CALLS, I believed it was my best film. It’s really a solid film – such a great ensemble cast, and I’m very proud of the story and the script. I think it really works – it’s the kind of story that you can put yourself into, and it also asks moral questions. What would I do if…? I think it’s solid – certainly my darkest movie, but a real triumph. Now that Tempe has it out there I hope it will find a larger audience.

PS: You really are one of the busiest and most productive guys I know. What keeps you motivated and what is your ultimate goal, as a filmmaker?

JH: Well thank you, I always try to be productive – it’s real easy to get lazy. But I guess the ultimate goal is to just keep on keeping on. I want to keep making movies and keep making the kind of movies I make. I love what I do, and I love my films that I’ve made.

PS: I’ve been wanting to ask you this one for awhile. What is your definition of a “Midnight Movie”?

JH: I guess to me a midnight movie is about freedom. The term comes from back when movies that were considered ‘cult’ movies used to show in theaters on weekends at midnight. And to me theses were always the movies that were free – they were different. They didn’t have to play by rules, they could be vulgar, they could be silly, they could be violent – they didn’t have to fit into the mainstream. Those were the kind of movies I set out to make, and I like to think I succeeded.

PS: I just want to say thanks again, Jim, and best wishes for 2012. What are some important calendar dates for Yellow Ape Productions and where can readers find out more about Jim Haggerty and his films?

JH: Thank You Peter, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you. Not sure when this will be published, but I will be at the Macabre Faire on Long Island with a Yellow Ape table on April 13-15, and then on the 28th we have the WHEN DEATH CALLS premiere. Suzi and Tina are both attending, so those in the NY area may want to try and make it. And I will be there as well!


Interview by Peter Syslo