Hell Is Where the Heart Is

By Richard Ostrum 

Stowed away atop the mighty House of Heroes comic book hot spot in the thick of Oshkosh is a grand laboratory adorned with majestic posters (mostly of the original Evil Dead) and copious objects truly fitting a film-savvy scholar. It houses one mad soul, hard at labor on a challenging collection of projects and ideas meant to move the area filmmaking community to an ever-higher level. The soul in question is that lovable man on a seemingly endless movie mission, John Pata. Pata, many of you should recall, is one of the chief creative engines behind one of the most positively received and widespread cinematic success stories ever generated out of the Oshvegas/Fox Valley landscape, Dead Weight. That film (which finally landed a fully legit, national distribution deal via Kino Lorber and became available online and on store shelves late last month) signaled the arrival of a potent cinematic commando with a natural knack for the form.

For those yet to witness Dead Weight (a number that we hope continues to dwindle), it is the tense, often troubling story of a young man named Charlie (Joe Belknap) and his increasingly self-centered quest to be reunited with his eternal true love Samantha (Mary Lindberg) across a post-outbreak tainted, Midwestern backdrop. The film plays out with few flaws despite the relative inexperience of many on either side of the camera. It serves as a much more effective study of the strange ticks of the human mechanism than some entrails-laden Walking Dead wannabe or entry-level slasher also-ran (though its new packaging may lead some to assume otherwise).

Dead Weight has done a serious number of festival dates and managed to win over a phat percentage its viewers. Many of them (myself included) would eventually get the itch to see just what this Pata fellow and his constantly expanding army of contributors (especially his Head Trauma co-hort Adam Bartlett) would follow this baby up with.

Enter, of all damn things, Virginian grindcore band Pig Destroyer and their frontman, J.R. Hayes’ engagingly demented arrangement of words. Several years back, when Pata was in his UW-Oshkosh student tenure, a friend introduced him to the writings on the inlay booklet of Pig Destroyer’s 2001 record Prowler in the Yard. Now, Pata, not traditionally given to the fashion of sonic violence contained in the record, nonetheless found himself immediately taken by a brief (four paragraphs + one sentence) piece of writing included in the booklet. The words attempt to convey the fractured psyche of a downtrodden soul sitting in his car outside the house containing the “better half” of a recently terminated relationship, harboring depraved intentions of a dire sort of reconciliation close to his crippled heart.

During a meet up a short while back, Pata confessed to me that he found that scant passage to be one of the most “beautifully disturbing” he’d ever read. It stuck with him, and he found himself returning to it a few years on when, in the wake of a rather disheartening creative setback (the disintegration of an ambitious horror opus named Among the Dead), Pata immersed himself in the penning of a series of short film scripts, the Pig Destroyer idea (to be tagged “Pity”) fell easily in line.

It would ultimately be a tad longer as the whole Dead Weight thing soon came together and soaked up a dominant chunk of Pata’s precious time. But in 2013 the focus came right back around to   “Pity.” In the small interim between the close of production on Dead Weight and this new short, Pata kept his filmmaking chops well oiled by lending assistance in varying capacities on several film projects guided by others. One such production, an Illinois based anthology called Chop-Shop, introduced John to several crew members whose work ethic and skill sets greatly impressed him (“They were all on the same page…it was almost like they ‘shined’, they didn’t have to verbally speak!” he told me), most of all, cinematographer Robert Patrick Stern who would carry his considerable abilities and enthusiasm over to “Pity.”

The time spent helping out and lugging around equipment on the sets of other people’s productions only worked to magnify the itch in John Pata to get back to realizing his own cherished vision. Pata reproached the “Pity” script, sent word out to Pig Destroyer main men Scott Hull and J.R. Hayes of his adaptation intentions and pitched to them his plan for interpreting the material as a short in hopes of acquiring the official rights to do so, which he did.

The next obvious step was to pull together the bodies, locations and gadgets necessary to take this thing all the way. Along with the already mentioned Adam Bartlett (who served as assistant director) and camera ace Stern, Pata tapped Sarah Sharp to realize the production design. To embody the lone acting role of the story, there is a guy named Jake Martin. Martin, a onetime frontman for a local band named Lead Me Not, is a long-standing friend of the director who has taken part, on camera, in each of his three film projects (as a zombie in Better Off Undead and an intimidating redneck in Dead Weight) and was deemed a natural fit for the brooding, closed-off and silent “Anonymous” (the only words spoken in the piece come care of voiceover).

Following around two and a half months of pre-production, the actual meat of the production process was largely realized on an area soundstage with a heady array of toys (lights, cameras, rainmaking devices) to give the project a much greater polish than anything Pata has attempted to date. Though the shoot only needed two days to complete, “Pity” required a greater level of complexity and variety in the camera work needed to help spice up the potentially limiting concept of one individual’s last moments of mortality while sitting in a car. Once the “Pity” shoot wrapped up, Pata began the arduous undertaking of piecing the resulting footage together into a coolly effective six minutes of elegant, dark storytelling.

Nicholas Elert (the man behind the band Northless who scored Dead Weight) is back matching lovely sounds with the imagery, and the completed “Pity” is set to make its big public bow this coming April during the monthly chaos that is the Oshkosh Gallery Walk. It will run every half hour at the Time Community Theater (of which John Pata serves as president) right on Main Street, accompanied by an exhibition of on-set photographs snapped by Mary Manchester and David Burke. From that point, Pata plans to push his “Pity” toward the sprawling film festival circuit (15% of the short’s $4,500 budget was set aside for submission fees) with a possible DVD package featuring a much longer “making of” documentary to arrive at some time down the road.

Once the “Pity” and the Dead Weight official rollout have cemented their respective places in the film universe, John Pata will likely not waste time before jumping headlong into the next significant stage of his filmmaking career. He already has multiple concepts in rapid development (including one about a troublesome chain letter he’s at work on with Mr. Bartlett, described as something along the lines of “if John Carpenter directed an episode of The X-Files”). In addition, John will be toiling as an editor on a documentary that is attempting to chronicle the rabid punk music scene that erupted in Green Bay between 1977 and 1987 (Kutskas Hall anyone?) and is slated to arrive sometime late in 2014 or early 2015.

Beyond all this, who knows, just rest assured people of Wisconsin, this native son has no plans to slow down. As the man himself summed up in relation to all of his experiences to date working on films, “No time on a film set is time wasted.” Prime words from a perfect source.

Keep up on the progress of “Pity” and other John Pata projects at these handy web spots:

We Are What We Are

Rising to a dismal rainfall, the matriarch of a remotely situated family in rural New York State sets out to embrace the inevitability of her impending demise. Left in the wake of this abrupt departure, an emotionally distant, ever-mulling father and his brood of socially isolated offspring find themselves burdened with a particularly daunting legacy. Such is the plotline establishment of Jim Mickle’s studied yet freshly unnerving re-take on the 2010 Mexican thriller of the same name (or Somos Lo Que Hay to keep it culturally specific) by Jorge Michel Grau. Transplanted to a storm-ravaged East Coast setting with shifts in gender alignment for many of the key characters, the story remains close in basic theme and situational development, all filtered through a distinct and personal directorial touch.

As with the two prior Mickle pictures (Mulberry St––probably among the finest of those After Dark Horror Fest entries and Stakeland), the director provides equal, perhaps superior, space to aspects of persona and genuine human behavior as opposed to saturating his story with too many cheap, exploitive shocks and the excessive carnage that would most likely reduce the result to the lower ranks of the disposable horror genre. Sticking closely with this suddenly diminished family four- pack (surname Parker) as they shuffle weakly forward with their deep-rooted lifelong rituals, the film charts their struggle as they enter into a sort of “fasting” process. Meanwhile pieces of their closely held secrets slowly come to the literal surface, care of the violent mischief of cruel mother nature.

What has placed this family so curiously outside the communal mainstream is the very disturbing fact that they are, indeed, full-on cannibals. Not quite the grindhouse-type savages of all those (mostly Italian) flesh-munching flicks that peppered the drive-ins and low-brow venues in the 70s and 80s, these cannibals are a somber, meditative lot who seem perpetually trapped in this hell embedded in their lineage. Seems the ancestry of this clan enacted this human-consuming option due to being Donner Party-like settlers, stuck with no other survival alternative. Because of hostile weather dragging past sins to the fore, many key members of the small surrounding populace (i.e. law enforcement) inch ever closer to the Parker’s tightly hewn personal bubble. With the threat of discovery closing in, the Parkers hurry to find a way, any way to keep their unit from being torn apart, eventually leading to a rather brutal collision of worlds at the film’s startling climax.

The body of Mickle’s variant on this flesh eater saga centers near the effect of this plight on the two young sisters (played by able actresses Julia Garner and Ambyr Childers) who must cobble together a semblance of stability in their homestead as their pa appears to slip into a remorseful waking coma. Mickle makes the most of his rather limited resources (this is no high-priced studio epic, mind you) as he has with his other works and sculpts some quality performances from a game and impressive cast that includes veterans Michael Parks (whose measured way of delivering dialogue elevates his performance even more) and Kelly McGillis (far removed from her Top Gun prime but effortlessly effective here as a friendly neighbor) plus some lesser known folks such Bill Sage as the casually deteriorating father figure, the director’s long-time partner in crime Nick Damici as the local sheriff and even Kurt Russell’s son Wyatt as a deputy with an eye on one the Parker daughters.

We Are What We Are comes to DVD and Blu Ray courtesy of the good folks at eOne Entertainment who have included an engaging running audio commentary by director Mickle, his camera man Ryan Samul and several cast members who give the impression of a creatively healthy production process.  There is also a near hour- long collection of behind the scenes footage that seeks to impart some of the day-to- day hands-on craftwork it took to make this film the fine little piece of disturbed art that it came to be. Recommended to any and all who favor a little bit more thought and class in their cannibal cinema.

Thank you for reading, may you never hunger for long.

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