I’ll have mine with gin from the sun and tonic from the sun.
Director Eric Stanze has made a name for himself among indie horror fans thanks to his ultra low-budget efforts. After the splatterfest of Savage Harvest, and before the hard-to-watch shocker of Scrapbook, Stanze spent four years crafting his fantasy/horror epic, Ice From the Sun. Years later, how does this ambitious, experimental offering stand up on DVD?
On the verge of death after a suicide attempt, Alison (Ramona Midgett, Savage Harvest) is contacted by an angelic being with an assignment for her. Centuries ago, a former wizard’s apprentice went evil, and now rules his own other-dimensional realm on the other side of “the ice.” This apprentice, now known as “the presence,” occasionally draws humans into his world to torture and kill them for his own amusement. As six partying 20-somethings are sucked into this nightmare landscape, Alison secretly joins them, to fulfill her assignment and kill the presence once and for all.
There are really two elements at play in Ice From the Sun, the story and the style. Both have Stanze pushing himself to create a large-scale film with a miniscule budget. I love this film for its ambition and its creativity, but I’m afraid there are too many “beginning filmmaker” flaws holding it back.
As far as the story goes, at its heart it’s fairly basic. The bulk of the plot has to do with these six slacker types who find themselves in a strange nightmare world, where one by one they are tormented by their greatest fears. This is conveniently foreshadowed by a conversation they have early on while hanging out, and the subject of “what scares you?” comes up. But that’s OK, because it’s the sort of genre convention fans expect. Because this other realm in which the movie takes place is a surreal, dreamlike place, it means that any surprise can be lurking around any corner, and the characters might find themselves in any environment, from eerie woods, to a freaky hospital, to an absurd S&M theater. This is the standard horror movie part of the film, with blood and guts everywhere, as well as generous amounts of nudity—both male and female.
But unlike most low budget horror flicks of this type, the story is not a simple one. A long, long time is spent on Alison learning all the background about the presence and the whole set up of this world. This means that a huge chunk of the film’s opening is all exposition. When we jump suddenly from a woman in a bathtub to a long discourse about wizards and alternate realities, it’s a lot for the audience to swallow. Perhaps tighter writing would have helped, or perhaps Stanze could have rewritten the script to start off with the characters in the other world, and then give us hints and clues about the presence along the way.
This brings us to the style of the film, which is what it most often gets praised for. Stanze pulls out every visual trick at his disposal throughout the movie. There are black and white shots, shots with tweaked colors, negative exposures, rapid-fire edits, and more. Some might call this “edgy” or “extreme,” but it gets to be too much after a while. Again, I applaud Stanze for his ambition, but a little restraint could have gone a long way. When things got interesting, I found myself wishing Stanze would have stuck to the story at hand, instead of overdoing it with the constant visual flourishes. Again, it gives off a “beginning filmmaker” feel, as if the director discovers all these neat tricks to use in a film, and decides to include them all, just because he can. It’s like a first-time writer using a lot of different fonts in a manuscript so it can look “cool,” when he or she should just stick to the writing itself.
Because the visuals are all over the map, judging the video quality is tough. It looks rough, but the commentary reveals that the entire movie has been remastered, and is the best it’s ever looked, and I have no reason to disagree. The audio doesn’t fare as well, as it tends to jump from screamingly loud during the music and sound effects sequences to hard to hear during the dialogue. Continuing the thread of how ambitious the movie it is, it has newly arrived on DVD with a packed two-disc set. On disc one are two commentaries, one with producer Jeremy Wallace and actress Ramona Midgett, and the other with Stanze and actor D.J. Vivona, who plays the presence. These are good commentaries, with a ton of anecdotes and footage from the “guerrilla filmmaking” production, as well as further exploration of some of the themes and ideas present. The feature-length documentary continues to cover almost every aspect of the movie, with interviews from many of the participants. This documentary comes with its own commentary track, which is a little dry and subdued, but contains more info about the production. More glimpses behind the scenes are found in a featurette about the score, and the actors’ original audition footage. There are also a still gallery, a collection of “film facts,” some music videos, trailers, and a few easy-to-find Easter eggs.
There are a lot of interesting ideas in Ice From the Sun, and a lot of raw talent behind the camera. But despite all of its good points, the movie remains more of a curiosity piece than the wild thrill ride the creators hoped for. Clearly, it was a learning process for those involved, and we look forward to more DVDs from Stanze’s career, to see how he might have grown as a filmmaker after this experimental phase.