Header Movie Review

Written by Eric "The Hitman" Strauss

A Mpyreal Entertainment film

Directed by Archibald Flancranstin
Written by Michael E. Kennedy (based on an Edward Lee story)
2006, 89 minutes, Not rated

Starring:
Jake Suffian as Special Agent Stewart Cummings
Elliot V. Kotek as Travis Clyde Tuckton
Melody Garren as Kathy
Jim Coope as J.L. Peerce
Dick Mullaney as Grandpap Jake Martin

Jake Suffian does a fine job as ATF agent Stephen Cummings.

Review:

In recent years, independent films have found an inspiration in out-of-the-mainstream horror fiction — a match made in heaven (or, more accurately, hell) for genre fans.

A few years ago at the Horrorfind Weekend convention, an excellent adaptation of the late Richard Laymon’s “In the Dark” made an appearance. Another Horrorfind veteran, author Jack Ketchum, has not one, but two films in production based on his novels: “Lost” and “The Girl Next Door.”

Edward Lee, whose fiction is known for its eroticism and often-shocking extremes of violence, is the latest to join the indie club, as Header, based on his novella, is making the rounds.

On Monday, Sept. 11, the film made its New York City premiere, part of Fangoria’s monthly monster-movie Monday series at the Pioneer Theatre down in the Village.

Given Lee’s penchant for cringe-worthy scenarios, when Header is billed as Lee’s “ultimate form of revenge,” that’s a lot to live up to.

Be warned: By all accounts, Michael E. Kennedy’s screenplay closely follows the (out of print) novella upon which the film is based. In fact, Ketchum, in attendance at the showing, said Lee “was blown away by it” when the author saw the finished product.

The film’s reputation preceded it, however, as the screening was attended by such luminaries as Fango bigwig Tony Timpone, Blue Underground’s Bill Lustig and representatives of Media Blasters, plus several members of the cast and crew.

Timpone, in fact, introduced the movie as “one of the most over-the-top horror films I’ve seen in a long time.” And now that I’ve seen the film, I’ll go out on a limb and guess he’s not just saying that. Header really does have to be seen to be believed.

As evidence, its marketing tagline is, “What’s a header?” — a question posed by two different characters in the film itself. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say Lee’s invention is something that repeatedly brought pained groans (and a bit of uncomfortable laughter) from the crowd.

And if you’re a hardcore horror fan, what you’re thinking of? Yeah, probably pretty damn close. There are scenes in Header that rank right up there with Barbara Crampton vs. the severed head in Re-Animator, if that gives you any idea.

Even producer Michael Philip Anthony admits there’s plenty of cheese with the drama, saying “We think it’s so over the top that people really get into it.”

If the crowd at the showing was any indication, they sure do.

Elliot V. Kotek makes for a menacing villain.

But Header is about more than bloody, violent, vile revenge. There’s a story there: The story of ATF agent Stewart Cummings. (We know he’s an ATF agent because, in the best Out of Sight tradition, he and his colleagues all wear shirts that say “ATF Agent” in big letters. Even while skirting the law themselves.)

Cummings, battling his own personal demons, finds himself absorbed with a series of strange murders in backwoods West Virginia — a typical Lee locale, full of crazy rednecks, trailer-park sluts and ex-con Travis Clyde Tuckton, whose crimes escalate from grand theft auto to murder and worse.

(Although, technically speaking, I don’t think it’s necrophilia if the victim isn’t quite dead.)

And it’s to the movie’s credit that, as the two outsiders — city boy Cummings and just-out-of-jail Tuckton — encounter the strange hillbilly tradition of the “header,” they respond entirely appropriately: Tuckton embraces it, while Cummings determines to stop it.

It’s even more to the movie’s credit that, as the blood slows — from the mind-blowingly disgusting gore to the merely sickening — the thrills and story are ramped up. By the time (most of) the bodily fluids stop flowing, you’re into the story and the characters’ lives enough that they are what matter, not the grue.

“It’s not just a stomach-churning movie,” Ketchum said. Speaking to Header star Jake Suffian about his role as Cummings, the author added, “Your character, his arc is extremely sad.”

It definitely helps that both focal roles are played by strong actors. Suffian is terrific, if a touch inconsistent, as the tormented Cummings. It’s the agent’s film, and Suffian hits almost all the right notes in a performance that requires everything from grim determination to anguish and beyond.

Elliot V. Kotek, meanwhile, big and greasy and hairy, makes a wonderfully menacing Tuckton — except when he opens his mouth, and that’s this B-movie’s one main problem.

See, none of the actors are backwoods West Virginia rednecks… but most are playing them. And their accents are universally horrible. At least in some cases, they’re probably meant to be funny, but when the Australian Kotek tries to sound like a hillbilly, he ends up sounding like he’s in the throes of puberty. Think of Mike Tyson — intimidating as hell, until he speaks. Then you’ve got to try not to laugh, lest he kill you and your family and eat you for dinner. Travis Clyde Tuckton? Exact same thing.

(Suffian must be glad that, playing the New York City-bred Cummings in a sort of reversal of Brad Pitt’s Se7en character, he is spared the embarrassment.)

At least for 80-something actor Dick Mullaney, playing Tuckton’s deranged “Grandpap,” the accent becomes a part of the character. Even if you can’t understand a word he says, Mullaney nearly steals the show in his legless senior citizen role, hitting all the right notes of madness as he roots his grandson on. He is, as my colleague Steve “Alien Redrum” Pattee would say, pure comedy gold.

(Although, Anthony insists, “I guarantee if you see the film a few more times, you’ll get every word.” Hey, the film’s good enough that I’d like to put his theory to the test and see it again.)

(Left) Author Edward Lee, second from right, was on set with fellow author Jack Ketchum, director Archibald Flancranstin and producer Michael Philip Anthony.

(Right) Dick Mullaney nearly steals the entire show as the crazy Grandpap.

The downside of all that demented comedy, of course, is that when the film starts, it’s a little schizophrenic in tone. The scenes with Cummings are played straight and serious, while the scenes with Tuckton hollering “Grandpap!” and Grandpap cackling back skate dangerously close to parody.

“It’s funny, but it’s not making fun of itself,” Ketchum said after the screening, but in the midst of it, there were times I wasn’t so sure. The film eventually evens out, fortunately, as it builds to its final confrontations.

Among the supporting cast, Melody Garren makes a sweet female lead as Cummings’ ailing love, and Jim Coope (who, coincidentally, played a character named for Ketchum in Flesh for the Beast) is solid as an ATF superior.

And speaking of Ketchum, watch for both him and Lee in brief cameos. Both are not only participants, they’re enthusiastic supporters of the film, no doubt a relief to their fans.

Of course, among the minor players, as often happens in low-budget movies, only one actor distinguishes himself: Patrick Nicholas, playing the drug dealer Dutch. Though it must be said that Lauren Devlin puts on a gutsy performance as Tuckton’s first victim, whose death — naked and kicking and screaming — sets the tone for the film.

Header has been three years in the making, thanks to some post-production issues, but you’d never know it by watching. Director/cinematographer/editor Archibald Flancranstin deserves a lot of credit for that. The film is well shot, slickly edited to good effect, and has a very professional, quality look and sound.

In fact, some serious postproduction sound woes were only obvious in hindsight, as the producer’s explanation during the post-film Q&A suggests why several effects-laden scenes had actors clearly mouthing words, but with background music replacing any dialogue.

If this isn’t at least a mid-tier indie in terms of budget — Anthony wouldn’t tell — I’d be shocked. The film was shot on location in rural western New York state, and it has a very expansive feel, with its multiple, varied sets. There’s everything from a backwoods shack to a crime lab to a crack house.

And the special effects, credited to Alex Marthaller, Brian Ray, David Plunkett and Ryan Carroll, are top-notch. And by “top-notch” I mean very, very realistic. It’s not quite Hostel, but the wounds are wince-worthy and — most importantly — never take you out of the film by looking fake.

But the best part about Header is, it’s fun. Okay, maybe not everybody’s idea of fun, but at the screening, the audience was an active participant, hooting and hollering and groaning in some places, and silently rapt in others. It’s got a story and leads worth paying attention to, enough blood-n-guts to delight the least discerning horror fan, and some genuine tension and thrills.

Header doesn’t have a distributor yet, but if you get a chance to see it, don’t pass it up.

And the next opportunity to see even a bit of the film will come at the end of this month, as there will be a Sept. 29 panel at Fangoria’s next Weekend of Horrors in New Jersey’s Meadowlands. According to producer Anthony, Lee will be there, along with Flancranstin, Suffian, Ketchum and others.

Video, audio and features grades: Not graded, as this was a film screening.

(Left) This was Flancranstin's first full-length feature.

(Right) Flancranstin and producer Anthony discuss a point on-set.

Grades:

 
Movie: 4.5 Stars
Video: n/a
Audio: n/a
Features: n/a
Overall: 4.5 Stars

Conclusion:

“It is what it is,” is one of Anthony’s self-deprecating mantras. And what it is? A flat-out entertaining movie.

If “the hillbilly accents are terrible” is the worst thing anybody can say about Header — and that’s really the worst thing anybody should say about Header — that means it was well worth the wait. It’s a film every fan of fun, thrilling, gory horror should see.

Want to comment on this review? You can leave one below or head over to the HorrorTalk Review Forum.

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