If you’ve lived in Jacksonville long enough, at some point someone has said that, in cinema’s nascent days, the Bold New City of the South was positioned to be its hub. Never heard this? So be it. I’m that someone.
As the story goes, a local church wasn’t feeling quite so ‘bold’ about their fair city being overrun by actors and actresses, deemed at the time to be only slightly better than hobos. So they collected their metaphorical pitchforks and torches and chased the early movie studios out of town, westward toward the California coast.
That’s usually where the story ends. Jacksonville misses out on being Tinseltown. The end. Truth is, while the big movie studios might’ve split, the movie-makers never did. Exploitation cinema actually has a rich history here. From Don Barton’s classic Z-movie creature feature ZAAT to John Grissmer’s Thanksgiving-based slasher Blood Rage, our city is still a place where directors on a budget try to bring their visions to life.
Local director-writer Sam Farmer continues this rich tradition of regional underground cinema with his new film Cry for the Bad Man. Filmed right here in sunny F-L-A with a cast of mostly fresh faces (the exception being lead actress Camille Keaton, most famous for her role in exploitation classic I Spit on Your Grave, but also known as Solange in the amazing gialloWhat Have You Done to Solange?), Farmer uses an obvious knowledge of grindhouse cinema to create his version of a home invasion thriller, à la Straw Dogs.
We observe Marsha Kane (Keaton) cleaning watery blood from walls and floors; circumstances unexplained. Flash-forward six months, protagonist Marsha is properly introduced as a recent widow; good ol’ boys pull up to her house intending to threaten her into selling her property. It doesn’t take long to realize this will not end well.
To an extent, that’s actually one of the big drawbacks in Farmer’s script. If you’re even slightly familiar with the ’70s-style revenge/home-invasion films that influenced him, you’ll know each beat of the story and some of the clichéd dialogue before it happens. Lower-budget horror movies aren’t notable for originality, but for a thriller like this, increasing tension about what you don’t know is vital.
Three brothers from a wealthy, corrupt family are trying to make a land grab. Wayne, the oldest, is portrayed by newcomer Scott Peeler, who fits perfectly into the David Hess-style archetype common to this genre. Maybe a little rough around the edges, still Peeler is captivating onscreen, with just the right dash of menace to seem threatening without becoming cartoonish.
J.R. (Christopher James Forrest) and Derrick (Eric Dooley) follow big bro as he takes them deep into darkness. J.R. fades a bit into a background prop, but Derrick takes center stage every time the camera frames him. That’s not a good thing, though. Background or foreground, Dooley chews the scenery to an absurd degree. His ham-fistedness undercuts the tension built from more tuneful turns by Peeler, Keaton and even Forrest. By the time we see Derrick strip down in front of Helen Kane (Karen Konzen), Marsha’s daughter, we wish Wayne had made good on his earlier bluff and just shot the scene-stealing SOB.
A few changes to the script would have benefited the overall feel of the movie. What if the Derrick character had been removed and the daughter, Helen, introduced earlier? What if some of the overlong beginning was condensed so that more time could have been spent on the Mexican standoff between the two rival factions, portrayed with a deadeye seriousness that blurred the line between protagonist and antagonist? The strongest characters in the movie, Marsha and Wayne, could have easily done more heavy lifting, thanks to the strong performances and the slow reveal of Wayne’s ulterior motives.
While the storytelling might falter, Farmer’s camera work and direction are fantastic. The advent of digital cameras and at-home editing and production tools is to filmmakers what TASCAM 4-track recorder was to 1980s musicians. They let visionaries create something that may not have been possible with traditional technology.
Farmer uses these tools like a pro, with wonderfully framed shots that would feel right at home in a wide-release film with 10 times the budget. Characters are shot not just through their eyes but through their minds. We move from a Steadicam shot of Marsha when she knows she has the intruders right where she wants them to a handheld, slightly shaky shot of Derrick roaming the halls looking for her, nerves shattered. These little touches are great, subliminal ways for Farmer to bring us into the action.
Will Cry for the Bad Man become another legendary midnight classic after which local pizzerias will name a thick-crust concoction? Not quite. But it’s a great running start for Farmer. With this movie, he’s proved he has true talent behind the camera, if not quite with pen and paper. With the right script, Farmer’s next film might let Jacksonville add yet another feather to its cap of exploitation classics.