Fangoria’s been pretty choosy about the DVD titles they’ve attached their names to, but what else would we horror fans expect from the genre’s most venerable publication? I mean, this is the magazine that not only made me realize it was okay to love horror the way I do, but assured me that there were tens of thousands of others out there who, like me, wanted to learn what lay beyond the gore and grimness. It also makes complete sense that Fango’s films are culled from the absolute fringe of the indie scene; films that are low-budget, but also subversive, challenging, and, in the case of their latest release, “Joshua”, pretty gosh-darned disturbing. And not disturbing in a Hostel or Saw way; no, compared to Joshua, those films are after-school specials.
Kelby Unger (Roberts) finds himself returning to the small town of Bisbee for his father’s funeral. It’s both a place he’d never expected to return to, and an event he’d never thought he be able to bring himself to attend as Bisbee holds much by way of bad memories for Kelby; not the least of which is the fact that his father had spent the last chunk of his life rotting in a cell after being convicted of murdering Kelby’s infant sister. After years away from this person and this place, Kelby is confronted by the specters of his past, including a pair of childhood friends with whom Kelby participated in an unspeakably violent, degrading, and purely evil act. Now, as the memories he’s tried so hard to bury begin to consume him, Kelby must fight to save his fiancé, his family, and himself, and finally lay to rest the ghost of the past that is Joshua.
Shot on 16mm film, and featuring a fantastic performance from Ward Roberts as the tortured Kelby, Joshua is one of those independent films that easily rivals big studio offerings in terms of style and substance, but this is a film that could have never been released in the mainstream as its subject matter is so dark and thoroughly brutal that even I found myself getting a bit uncomfortable. I don’t want to expound on the childhood indiscretions of Kelby and his friends as I feel that this realization is the crux of the film, as well as its most potent horrific element, and to give it away would be a disservice to potential viewers. I will say, however, that it’s something of a seat squirmer, and a darker concept than just about anything I’ve seen in years. Director Travis Betz does a great job of keeping any sense of levity from creeping into the film, assuring us that our time spent in Kelby’s world will be just as traumatic for us as it is for his lead character. I was pleasantly surprised by Betz’s restrained shooting style, as well, which is a far cry from the manic camera work and editing style of the majority of independent horror films that have come our way recently. Joshua looks and feels more like something from the early 80’s, with lots of static shots, classic-style framing, and a deliberate pace that makes a creepy movie all the more creepier.
Joshua isn’t without its problems, of course, but, working with such a low-budget, one can’t expect technical perfection. The audio is a bit soft at times, and there’s that “home movie” sort of echo during quiet dialogue scenes shot indoors. There are also a few weak performances, but these are limited to the bit players and the strength of the lead performers more than makes up for them.
The version of Joshua I received was an advanced screener from Hart Sharp Video, featuring the full-length feature, as well as what I can only assume are the retail ready extras (deleted scenes, alternated ending, production stills, etc.).
I’m giving Joshua a good review because it’s a very well-made, well-acted, and very original film, but that doesn’t mean I liked it. That’s not a slight to the film; I just don’t see this as one of those movies you can like. You can appreciate it, and you can be disturbed by it, but this isn’t the sort of movie you’ll chat about at the water cooler on Monday morning.
As a matter of fact, you’ll probably be doing your damnedest to get it out of your head.