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Clearwater   C

Stone Dead Films

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Andy Koontz
Writer: Andy Koontz
Cast: Randy Bowden, Julie Wand, Chris Koontz, Mike VanYserloo, Andy Koontz, Jess Gulbranson.

Review by Eric Beltmann

Made for $500 and written, directed, edited, and scored by someone you've never heard of, Clearwater is some kind of anomaly -- but not the kind you're thinking about. The fact that Andy Koontz, an autonomous filmmaker based in Portland, actually finished this low-budget shocker has little to do with what's unique about it, even if most media outlets would rather pretend that it doesn't exist.

The truth is that regional filmmakers are producing pictures in record numbers, and most journalists, unable to sift through the cascade of product, have decided that the best way to deal with this phenomenon is to simply look the other way. Unfortunately, the other way is where blockbusters lie, and by ignoring the new wave of digidirectors -- those empowered by the inexpensive, democratizing muscle of digital video -- journalists implicitly endorse the logic of the American studio system, which asserts that only major releases matter. Yet marginalizing the artistic aptitude of those working on a small scale seems way off beam; saying that the only movies worth seeing are those that are readily accessible is a lot like saying the only music worth hearing is what spins on Top 40 stations. Indeed, perhaps the best reason to pay attention to the smallest corners of cinema is that the next Altman or Cronenberg might be there instead of at your local multiplex.

I won't argue that Andy Koontz is likely to be another Cronenberg, or even another Romero, but there are enough ideas in Clearwater to at least say his horror show is worth thinking about. What makes it distinctive -- what separates it from most other cheap howlers -- is that Koontz strives for a genuinely pensive mood, eschewing the flying flesh and blood buckets that usually underscore this subgenre. Shot in a bombed-out, contrasty black-and-white that occasionally flares and flickers, the slow, extended takes occur in a hazy limboland, a ghostly dreamscape inhabited by real homes, real sheds, and real parking lots -- this is a skeletal vision of suburbia, its bones spooked by the threat of menace.

The first 25 minutes are the strongest, partially because during that stretch there's virtually zero dialogue other than the pleading, piercing refrain of "help me" escaping from the lips of a young woman being held hostage by a serial killer. In between the spare torture scenes (in particular, a fuss involving pliers and teeth resonates, although in general I think Koontz leers a bit too much at the victim's bloodied face), a plot begins to ripen. Unable to halt his own homicidal tendencies, the killer begins sending clues to a random man, an average joe trapped between his fear and his ethics: Should he ignore the ominous phone calls, or should he try to rescue a perfect stranger? Trying to resolve that internal distress is where Koontz stumbles badly, since he settles for genre clichés and blunt, armchair psychology. Nevertheless, the attempt at achieving something more than geysers of blood must be considered commendable, especially since Koontz's previous movie was Them Damn Zombies, a shoddy ode to organ chomping.

Fans of that juvenile gorefest might not be satisfied with the brooding, restrained gloom of Clearwater, but I think this new, more ambitious effort represents a notable step forward for Koontz. More importantly, it represents something significant about our national cinema -- not only is it set in America's backyard, it also reveals how some creative forces are hard at work there. Clearwater might not be one of the jewels of regional filmmaking, but I'm glad to have seen it, I'm glad to have heard Koontz's haunting, delicately throbbing musical score, and I'm glad to report that it contains a great piece of gallows humor: As the killer scribbles a map, his markings begin to resemble a game of hangman. To my eyes, that moment is wittier than anything in Rob Zombie's better-known House of 1000 Corpses -- it's perfect evidence for why we must expand our sample size, and seek out artists operating on the fringes.

For more information about Clearwater, Andy Koontz, and Stone Dead Films, check out horroronfilm.com.

Review published 10.06.2003.

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