Short Film: The Program
Nothing catches my attention more than retro nostalgia for VHS content. The late 80s and through the 1990s were a mecca for “how to” videotapes, a landscape where any corporation or pseudo expert or straight-up weirdo could enter the distribution sector with a slapped-together product, showcasing indirectly their inner psyche and creepiness in the best of efforts. Michael Elliot Dennis’ The Program not only captures the imagination and the obscurity of such people and their creative ambitions but also of the consumers desperate to latch onto anything.
A hapless thrift store clerk, mustachioed with a blank stare, is given a box of old, dumpster found VHS tapes, featuring a numbered series known as “The Program”. Popping them in, one by one into the store VCR, this clerk discovers a mad-scientist of sorts, speaking directly to the camera, in ambiguous nonsense regarding life fulfillment and reaching an absolute potential. In between fits of oddball and go-nowhere energy bursts, this scientist will have coughing fits and sickly moments of sweat beading off of him. Nevertheless, our clerk is hooked and must find the final tape for genuine achievement.
The Program is, by all means, a comedy – be it a creepy one – that fully understands the obsessive nature of collectors, of loners, and of those who, for one reason or another, still own a VCR (no judgment). The clerk could really be any kind of low-economy hipster but in particular someone with no passion or drive. In finding something that promises a message (but never delivers, because it’s a “full of crap” self-help VHS) he ultimately finds the vapid vacuum of a void he so richly is stuck within. It’s all so funny, because it’s all so true of many people we know, thus becoming sad and scary at once.
What happens once the final tape for your collection has been found? Is the point never to find that tape? To continue on this journey that merely justifies itself on a superficial level? Yes. And that, my friend, is terrifying.
RATING: 4 / 5
Feature Presentation: My Soul to Keep
Steven Spielberg? J.J. Abrams? What have you wrought?
Seriously, My Soul to Keep (MSTK in the opening title credits) is pretty, is tense, and full of lights and colors, but what it does and where it goes is perhaps reaching too far beyond its stoop. Not that you should never try, but…
The film, about a child with a knack for engineering who is being hunted and haunted by what he calls “The Burghley Monster”, a shadow creature that is personified by his basement furnace, is about Ninety or so minutes, but the majority of that time is spent with this kid wandering his home in the dark with glow-sticks, and running away here and there. Too much time, not enough matter, honestly. However, what was accomplished here did dazzle at times and concern me often.
When we meet his loving and nearly perfect parents, they’re in a conference with his teacher. She suggests new medication for “BPD”, which I can only guess means Bi-Polar Disorder. We’re to assume from here that whatever horror exists might be in his mind or a manifestation of something deeper within. His sister is a true sociopathic psycho, scaring the daylights out of him for simple antics, and messing with his emotions on a grand scale. Does the movie end with his sister becoming nice? Maybe defeated in some way? I won’t say, except that it takes a curve I wasn’t expecting and found very disappointing (even if it felt real).
MSTK is a beautiful looking feature length movie with a story meant for a short. It’s stretched too thin and suffers sometimes from Spielberg-sploitation. The wide-eyed wonder among real-world frights is a hand played too often and driven into the ground too soon.
Still, something about a haunted house battle between a kid armed with flashlights and a being of darkness is appealing. And really, I’d watch again. Seriously.
RATING: 2.5 / 5
Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved. Follow him on Twitter: @billreviews