Frank Capra once said, “There are no rules in filmmaking only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.” Writer/director Ian Messenger’s Fireside Tales (2016) is replete with technical issues that unfortunately serve to draw your attention away from the story being told.
But upon closer examination, there is quite a good movie veiled by those problems. Capra spoke of dullness, but that is a transgression Messenger (The Hog; Monkey Farm) did not commit. Flawed by technical filmmaking faux pas, Fireside Tales still delivers an enjoyable movie-going experience.
SYNOPSIS: A low-budget anthology film focuses on a young group of friends, gathered for a night of fun and drinks around a campfire. Every year they try to outdo themselves telling scary stories. Will they survive another round? One story showcasing 5 unique macabre tales to frighten audiences everywhere.
First, and foremost, Messenger is obviously well-acquainted with the horror genre. One of the most delightful parts of Fireside Tales is the seemingly never-ending homages to some of the horror genre’s best and brightest. The crux of the story focuses on a group of friends in the woods telling stories around a campfire which will take you back to Paul (John Furey) scaring the holy Jesus out of his counselors with his tale of Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981).
During the first story “Undertow,” you will get a distinct The Hills Have Eyes (1977) vibe from both the location and the nature of the Leviathan (Ian Messenger) terrorizing those hapless victims. Even better is the spectacular overhead shot Messenger pulls off with the three youngsters walking toward the beach.
You can see and feel how alone they are out there in the rough, and the whole vibe on the beach is somewhat reminiscent of “The Raft” in Creepshow 2 (1987). This particular movie-making moment – a glorious overhead shot – shows glimpses of what Messenger can do technically as a filmmaker.
More homages are peppered throughout as the second story is one of vigilante justice toward The Bad Man (Messenger) which has a distinct The Last House on the Left (1972) flavor. This portion of the anthology also has a wonderful bit of juxtaposition, within a murder sequence, between a peaceful stream that quickly cuts away to the bloody face of The Bad Man’s beautiful victim. As he drags her away, the gravel surface is wet with her blood which creates this eerily grotesque aesthetic.
Justin Celani’s performance as the drunk party boy is so over the top that audiences will be stunned when he shows off his acting chops in the anthology’s third chapter. Justin executes a wonderfully-written monologue as his character John explains to Avery (Brown) that he and Danielle (Maria Moody) just want to be a family again. And to accomplish this, John needs to feed Avery to the mysterious mountain monster. The whole sequence – the revelation – just goes to show what superb writing and A-List acting can pull off when all the ingredients come together.
Surprisingly, there is not an overt amount of sex, blood or gore in the film. But when those elements are in play, they are spectacular. There is a gratuitous shot – a closeup – of Lucy’s (Suzanne Currier) perfect buttocks in her short shorts during “Undertow” as she fetches food and water from the trunk of the car. This in-your-face sexy shot is a staple of the 80’s slasher sub-genre, but don’t get hung up on her looks. Currier is one of the better actors performing in Fireside Tales. But do take the time to relish Messenger’s subtle nod to the Friday the 13ths, Slumber Party Massacres and Witchcrafts of yesteryear.
At the end of the story, the killer prepares to finish off his male victim who is hanging from a noose in the madman’s lair. The monster pulls out a container of livestock spray and dip. Nothing plays out on screen, which is perfect for those macabre maniacs with overactive imaginations, but you will hope that dude is really dead already. Otherwise, things are about to get sticky for that poor soul. Imagery like this appeared heavily in Hammer Horror films of the 1950s and 1960s. There was always just the right amount of blood and gore to wet fans’ appetites, but nothing too in your face. Most of the time, the horrors were indeed left up to the imagination.
One of the most glaring issues with Fireside Tales is the numerous amount of static shots that appear in the film. This plagues both the enjoyability and tempo of the movie throughout. Example: After a breathtaking establishing shot of the cool purple and blue sky opens the narrative, Donna (Donna Alisiya Brown) and Scott (Scott Hamilton) sit in their car and discuss meeting Scott’s friends for the first time.
The conversation between the lovers takes place in one medium shot that never cuts away or offers any close-ups. In other words, nothing happens in terms of camera movement and craft. More times than not, this simply signals a filmmaking novice and is easily correctable. Simple close-ups of Donna and Scott would add a real sense of intimacy to this scene and help break up the monotonousness of what turns out to be a 44-second static exchange – an eternity in filmmaking.
Not to be outdone, is the often atrocious lines spewed by so many of the actors. Between the script’s dialogue and a few terrible acting choices, the characters in Fireside Tales come across more like caricatures of stock players featured in the odious horror films from the 1980s. Watch the video footage (below). Instead of a straight-up trailer, the filmmakers have given you a five-minute glimpse of the movie. You can get a sense of the dialogue problems from the get-go.
Another glaring – pun not intended – obstacle that was not addressed during the filming process was the overexposure of sunlight in so many of the outdoor/daytime shots. The first such example appears during “Undertow” when a majestic shot reveals the harsh landscape the victims are trapped within.
Towering mountains make for a haunting shot, but the glaring beach – overly bathed in sunlight – quickly becomes the focal point. Unfortunately, outdoor overexposure to light is something that occurs particularly with up-and-coming filmmakers. Most often, if you get stuck with a shot that is just too bright, you can make the aperture smaller on your digital camera to correct the issue. For example, an ISO of 200 and an aperture setting of F11 can really darken that excess sunlight.
There is so much right about Fireside Tales as it pays homage to the horror genre and the dwindling anthology format. The villains and monsters are fierce-looking and they are all superbly emblematic of Michael Myers, Leatherface and the Frankenstein Monster.
And even with so many technical problems tarnishing the movie, Messenger pulls off breathtakingly epic, long shots throughout the runtime. Be sure and take notice of the filmmaker’s nod to Hitchcock, too: shots of feet! And while the overexposure of light diminishes the effectiveness of those daytime shots, the nighttime lighting is something Mario Bava would have taken pride in.
Donna Alisiya Brown takes home the Oscar for Best Actor in Fireside Tales. Her performance is authentic and nuanced. She picks her moments and comes across natural – believable. And the camera loves her. Not to give away the film, but there is a moment near the end when Donna worries about being killed by a cow. Thanks to Brown’s acting chops you’ll both laugh and be worried for her character all at the same time.
Fireside Tales is an astute rough cut. Sadly, the final version of the film is presented to the masses by Catch Me Kill Me Productions and Rising Fire Films as a finished product. Unfortunately, this is not the case from a technical standpoint; Messenger has all the tools in the world. It’s up to him from here on out, and the sky is the limit. Filmmaking can be an unforgiving mistress who demands too much of a creator’s time and so much of their attention only to screw them over in the end. With a little more time and experience under his belt, Messenger’s work will undoubtedly rock the film festival circuits and beyond.
Recommendation: SEE Fireside Tales with an open mind, so you can enjoy some impactful independent filmmaking.