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Fade to Black   C

Upstart Filmworks

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Mel House
Writer: Mel House
Cast: Nickie Morgan, Cesar Castillo, Ryan Reaves, Catherine Pine, Robb Zipp, Vaughn Dampier, Natalie George, Mandi Leblanc.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

What happens when you have a good, promising script but only $300 with which to make the movie? More often than not, something like Fade to Black happens, that's what. And most of that $300 budget went to food for the cast and crew. This movie is a no-budget indie in the strictest sense -- and it is hurt by its nonexistent budget, but it manages to be intriguing in spite of all that. The movie's strengths lie in its well-written screenplay by writer-director Mel House, who has a knack for witty dialogue and amusing plot twists.

The movie centers on Julia (Nickie Morgan), an aspiring actress and college student who has an asshole student filmmaker named Gilby (Cesar Castillo) for a boyfriend. Of course Julia has her share of faults and hang-ups, too. When she visits the set of Gilby's latest project and sees her best friend hanging out there, she immediately suspects that they're screwing around behind her back. When we see them arguing at their apartment later that night, it's obvious that this isn't exactly the healthiest relationship in the world. And if Gilby is telling the truth that he's not messing around with her friend behind her back, why is he being so secretive about the film project he's working on?

To reveal any more about the plot would be pushing it. This is a movie that's built upon its twist and turns, and the less you know about it going in the more you'll enjoy it. Writer-director Mel House loves toying with the audience, and he gives the movie a darkly comic tone that suits it well. If it was played entirely straight, with no sense of humor or irony, I don't think it would work. As it is, it's a bit slow at times, but there are some great bits of dialogue (most of it dealing with movies) scattered throughout.

But like I said, the lack of a budget and cheap production values ultimately hurt Fade to Black quite a bit. It's shot on digital video and, yes, much of it does have that uncanny resemblance to Uncle Bob's home videos (a stigma associated with many shot-on-video flicks), minus the shaky, nausea-inducing handheld camerawork. In fact, many of the scenes are shot with a stationary camera, which can result in the scenes being surprisingly dull. Poor sound quality is often a problem as well, but this is something that has plagued micro-budget filmmakers shooting on video since the dawn of time. If there's one piece of advice I can offer every micro-budget filmmaker out there, it's this: Hire the best sound guy you can find, no matter the cost. As it is, scenes that are supposed to pack a punch often come off as less than impressive.

There are some decent performances, even if some of the acting is a bit too theatrical (and some it just plain lousy, but I won't mention any names to protect the guilty). Nickie Morgan does a good job as the lead, while Cesar Castillo pulls off the asshole-you-love-to-hate shtick without a hitch. In the end, Fade to Black is a darkly comic thriller with a good script and some kick-ass dialogue, but it's hampered by its budgetary limitations.

Review published 03.21.2002.

Follow Michael Scrutchin on Twitter or Letterboxd.

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