The Family that Slays Together Lays Together
Would you be shocked if I told you that the best word to describe Cory J. Udler’s Incest Death Squad is “cute”? Depending on your tastes and mental thesaurus, you might unload other adjectives; but I found this indie tale of murderin’, fornicatin’, Bible-quotin’ psychopaths to be as cozy and charming as a cup of cocoa on a cold winter’s day.
Much of my love for this movie has nothing to do with the main story or the titular characters. Rather, I admire Udler’s plucky spirit in putting together a bizarre slasher film with limited resources and a true filmmaker’s vision. A lot of Incest Death Squad simply doesn’t work, but the weaker elements are buoyed by the writer/director’s intent—in this rare case, that goes a long way with me.
The Incest Death Squad consists of siblings Jeb and Amber Wayne (Greg Johnson and Carmela Wiese, respectively), whose mission in life is to murder any Illinois tourists who dare set foot in their sacred Wisconsin woods—which technically makes them an “Incest Death Duo”, unless you count Jesus as a silent partner. Amber uses her sexpot trashiness to lure out-of-towners up to the family barn, where Jeb rises from the haystacks like a modern day Tor Johnson to bludgeon the suckers to death with various farming tools. Afterwards, they console each other with scripture and screwing, often using their victims’ blood as lubricant.
That’s not the charming part of the movie, nor is it the part that works. Parallel to Jeb and Amber, we have Aaron (Tom Lodewyck) and Andrea (Melissa Jo Murphy). Aaron is a small-town newspaper reporter who ventures deep into the country searching for a big story (his editor, played by Troma founder and genuine screwball Lloyd Kaufman, prefers sensational pieces about dead hookers over traditional journalism). Andrea rents him a room at her hotel and the two of them immediately hit it off. The heart of Incest Death Squad—but not the focus—is this relationship, and I absolutely believed Lodewyck and Murphy as a couple of decent, lonely people finding each other and falling in love.
Unfortunately, we’re not watching Wisconsin Womance, which means Aaron—and the movie—will soon be distracted by an encounter with Jeb and Amber. It’s here that the story loses its way and becomes a weird psychosexual drama involving Aaron’s descent into madness. After seeing the killers take out a couple of idiots, Aaron is cornered and coerced into helping them chop up the bodies. He’s then hypnotized into having sex with Amber during an impromptu church service. Jeb allows Aaron to live, convinced that he’s been called by God to do the good work of murdering tourists.
There’s another development upon Aaron’s safe return to Andrea that I’ll leave for you to discover; it’s interesting, but like much of the plot’s darker machinations it doesn’t really work—except as a device for setting up a sequel.
As I mentioned before, a lot of Incest Death Squad doesn’t work, and I’d like to hit on a couple of specific pitfalls that future filmmakers should avoid when crafting their indie opuses:
1. Actors and Accents. I assume Udler put out a casting call for this film, at least for the main roles. He struck gold with Lodewyck and Murphy, but Johnson and Wiese fail as anti-heroes. They have a great, menacing look—Johnson with his huge, shaved head and Sunday-best suspenders and Wiese’s creepy, crazy smile—but their performances are downright confusing. Johnson’s Southern accent sounds like a cross between a Massachusetts parody and an old-timey radio announcer, and Wiese might as well be Ally Sheedy doing a cold reading. It’s really frustrating to see two potentially iconic figures fall to their figurative knees with every line delivery.
Johnson and Wiese fare better than the extras, though. If the tourists and stoner characters auditioned and earned their parts, I’d be very surprised. These are friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend casting choices at best (and “Hey, I’ve got a six pack; wanna be in a movie?” at worst).
Also, the opening gag involving Amber and Jeb taking out a couple of trashy assholes from Schaumburg, Illinois doesn’t work for two reasons: A) If you don’t know anything about Schaumburg, then the joke about a “justified homicide” doesn’t make any sense, and B) Schaumburg is not a poor suburb, so presenting its residents as beer-swilling, sexist freaks is an equally head-scratching choice.
2. Jelly-fishy. I don’t know what tone Udler was aiming for with Incest Death Squad. The premise is very dark, and the execution waffles between seriously disturbing and downright goofy. On the one hand, we have scenes where people get their brains bashed in and their balls crushed in metal grips; on the other, we have a car-driving montage where Aaron turns his map every which way, smokes a joint, swigs from a flask, and stops in two places to pee—encountering the same lady walking her dog in both cases.
In what I assume are supposed to be genuine horror movie moments, we see Jeb psychically communicating with Amber, yelling “Bring ‘em home, baby!” while stabbing a hay bale—an homage, I guess to the “Kill her, mommy” scene from Friday the 13th. The quick cutting and shabby line reading made me question whether I was supposed to be spooked, amused or annoyed.
Similarly, Johnson’s rise from the hay pile contained zero suspense or style—two things that should be high priorities of any horror filmmaker (the same goes for the use of strawberry preserves as a blood/brains substitute; my first thought on seeing someone’s head getting bashed in should be, “That’s disgusting!”, not, “Is there any peanut butter in the cupboard?”).
There’s one last nit to pick, but I’m actually going to place it in the Positives column. It’s very clear that the “set” of Aaron’s newspaper’s office is the conference room of a hotel during a horror convention. All the close-ups and clever angles in the world can’t disguise the personality-free vertical-stripes wallpaper and fake-fern chintz of a Marriott meeting space; and isn’t it suspicious that a newspaper editor would have a Poultrygeist bumper sticker on his shirt? This set choice gets points from me for sheer ballsiness and ingenuity.
Any independent horror filmmaker needs to understand that they’re creating movies in a very crowded marketplace—one that boasts August Underground as the high water mark of ultra-violent, ultra-realistic savagery, in my opinion. If a movie is to stand out as shocking or special, it needs to be tight in terms of story, acting and effects.
Incest Death Squad isn’t scary enough to hold up as a horror film; it’s not intentionally funny enough to be a horror comedy. It is anchored by two spectacular performances, some really cool cinematography—the backwoods of Wisconsin have never looked so poetic—and a surprisingly effective use of music (death metal as conversational ambience—who knew?).
I would love to see Cory J. Udler tackle a sweet, romantic comedy or even a straight drama. He has gifts as a visual storyteller and as a director of (talented) actors. As a horror auteur, though, he’s more “mushy” than “menacing”.