Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ratline


Ratline
Directed by: Eric Stanze
USA, 2011
Drama/Horror/Exploitation, 109min
Distributed by: Wicked Pixel Cinema

If you write that your movie is about Nazi Occultism on the cover art, I will watch it. I have an intense soft spot for Nazi’s and the paranormal – and why not, it’s so goddamned out there. I love the Third Reich’s fascination with the occult. I have done so since Spielberg and Lucas made a Saturday morning matinée about the krauts obsession with the supernatural. If you also happen to be an indie filmmaker, with some really interesting movies on your resume, then I will undoubtedly watch.

To set up the story of Ratline, it would be easiest to say that the movie is about the hunt for an old Nazi flag referred to as “Die Blutfahne”, a mythical swastika flag that went missing at the end of the Second World War. The only surviving member of the SS Paranormal Division is now seeking the flag with the intentions of completing the rituals that have been brewing for decades.

The main selling point of Ratline is obviously the Nazi connection, the promise of grotesque entertainment and spontaneous nudity along the way - as you will see from the trailer below. It’s all there, but Ratline serves up something much more than just an average exploitation flick. It shoves itself way beyond simple conventions and presents an intriguing and engaging story that delivers some severe shocks in it’s final act.

So, instead of going where convention predicts, Ratline tells the story of several characters and how their paths cross along the road of life. The initial set up creates a mood for the flick, as a bloodied, post-heist Crystal [Stanze regular Emily Haack, looking better than ever] burns her clothes and cleans up before hitting the road again – this woman is on the go. Cut to opening credits, which pass by rapidly as a metaphorical escape from the starting point, only to land in a Satanic Cult preparing their ritual. We stick with the youngsters for a while, and you would think you know who the leading characters are by now. But when the Satanic Cult, now on the roam for a human to sacrifice, fail to snare Crystal in their sinister trap, the focus shifts to a lone man peacefully driving his truck down the road. The kids lure him in, and moments later he’s tied up and ready to meet his maker as the kids tell him that he will be Satan’s sacrifice tonight.

A twist in the same form as the classic Psycho twist topples the world we have been introduced to. Where storytelling guru Robert McKee would shout out negation of the negation, Stanze and Christ thrust it full speed up that street. The entire opening set up with the teenagers performing a mock “this is what we think it’s supposed to be like” satanic ritual, and getting carried away to the extent of performing a human sacrifice becomes superbly ironic as they stare into the face of death in the shape of Frank Logan, [co-writer Jason Christ, also a frequent Stanze collaborator] a supernatural übermench who’s all the kids imagine themselves to be, amplified thrice.
For most of the first half of the movie, the ordinary world is established; characters present themselves and reveal their traits. Subplots are introduced, Penny Webb [Sarah Swofford] is presented, we gain insight into the backstory of Crystal, and the very real threat that she has pending over her life. It's a slow build, but it's necessary for where Stanze is going to take us.

But so far there are no characters that I really care about. They may interest me, but they primarily go about their business and where ever the day takes them. Their lives are woven together as their paths intersect and I find myself wondering where it’s all going to go… after all I do have some presumptions of the characters and what they may get up to. Somewhere just past midpoint – [59minutes] the first of many reveals is presented. First it’s the genesis of the Blood Flag, the item that Frank has been hunting through the movie, and the Nazi thread of the movie. It’s presented in a great - retro newsreel “found footage” complete with director cameo - way and does a great job of kick starting the second act. Now it all makes sense, we know of Frank’s identity, and this starts up a new wave of questions.

Then something unique happens. A moment that in its restrained shape proves that less is more, and a moment that definitely could have become something completely different. Instead it becomes a key moment of the movie. Penny and Crystal are drawn together by their desire for each other, but instead of using the moment to jump into gratuitous moment of nudity and sexploitation, Stanze has the two women merely connecting. An initial moment of intimacy that proves they have a desire for each other. From here they share a common foundation from which they can build a future together - a small sliver of light in Crystal’s darkness. They kiss, they embrace, and we can see the lust in their eyes. They have both yearned after this intimacy a long while and finally, as they find it, they have something worth fighting for. I call this an important moment as it establishes a value within the movie. Crystal who has been on the run for the major part of the movie – running from her past, running from her now and most likely to run from her future too – finds a reason to stop. There’s a possible love story there, which fills her character with value. I’ve said it in texts before; love is a strong tool in movies. We can all identify with the emotions a play; the emotional recognition is what creates the empathy for the characters. Crystal and Penny now have a value, never mind how dark and nihilistic we may be, we will want that moment of ecstasy to come. Their joy is our joy. The Crystal/Penny affair is used brilliantly, as it builds from here on out and culminates in the movies strongest and profoundest moments of disturbing darkness.

The slow build, which has lead up to the Frank backstory and the Crystal/Penny affair, culminates with a final rush of insight. We finally find out how these characters all come together, and in what way they all fit into the bigger picture. It’s an impressive move, which I should have seen coming, but I didn’t, for which I give all credit to Stanze (and Christ) as it caught me by complete surprise.

So I though that I’d be watching a cheap exploitation flick drenched with blood and gratuitous nudity, and the usual hardened unconditional approach that Stanze brings into his movies. But I ended up getting something completely different. Yeah, there’s nudity – fitting within the context, there’s some gore – at times fantastically gross and impressive, and that dark approach Stanze brings to his subjects is perfected with Ratline.

I’ve recently had the pleasure of watching through a retrospective of Stanze’s work due to the Eric Stanze Collection box being released by Njuta Films here in Sweden. (Ratline not included, but six other titles, which I reviewed in the November issue of Cinema – English version available on ipad - where I also pointed out that Stanze worked Second Unit on Jim Mickle’s impressive Stakeland.) There’s no doubt about it, Ratline is the Stanze-one-man-film crew’s most flawless work and it’s definitely a breaking point in his career. Indie movies usually just play though and that’s that, but Ratline really got under my skin, as some well played tricks pulled me in, set me up and unexpectedly shocked me.

Do NOT miss Ratline, as I have a feeling this is the one that makes the difference. It's the kind of movie that makes me love independent movies all over again, as it comes out of nowhere; punches hard and leaves an imprint that will last a long time. Skillful storytelling applied on genre, in the very best way.

The disc also features a behind the scenes documentary, and two commentary tracks, both featuring Stanze and both giving different insights into the movie and the filmmaking process. You should be listening to these kinds of things if you claim to be interested in making, or simply understanding movies. This is where you learn it for real, but watching stuff and listening to the people who made them.

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