"Fraternity Massacre at Hell Island" was filmed in Memphis, circa late-2005, on a shoestring budget of approximately $45,000. Following a handful of screenings and film festival appearances in 2006 and 2007, the picture was still unable to find a distributor. From there, discouraged writer-director Mark Jones understandably assumed the movie was destined for a life of obscurity. Three years later, it has been picked up by savior Ariztical Entertainmenta company specializing in projects with gay subject matter and themesand is finally available on DVD. While it is always a chancy proposition checking out ultra-low-budget genre items (so many of them, after all, are amateurish letdowns), "Fraternity Massacre at Hell Island" defies the odds. It's a genuine jewel in the rough, worthy of taking the time out to let other potential viewers who have never heard of it and might be interested to give it a shot and support genuinely talented indie filmmakers like Mark Jones.
A horror-comedy rooted in slasher flick theatrics, Jones' goal is rarely to achieve scares so much as a wave of laughs and knowing nods at his self-referential treatment of whodunit conventions. For a compact 80-minute running time, the writer-director proves ambitious and adept, setting up a tapestry of simultaneous storylines and subplots to go along with an overflowing ensemble of characters roughly as large as Robert Altman's "Nashville
" or Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia
." Even so, the pacing never bogs down and the narrative never becomes confusing or needlessly complicated. As serious undercurrents creep into the mixmany of them connected to the conflict protagonist Jack (Tyler Farrell) faces in deciding whether to come out to his macho fraternity brothers or remain quietly in the closetthe tone stays light and the entertainment value high. Jones' goal isn't to preach, yet his decision to introduce same-sex elements into the mix not only adds depth to what is otherwise a pretty darn silly film, but groundbreakingly joins 2005's fellow gay-themed slasher pic "Hellbent
" as one of the founding members of a too-exclusory horror subgenre.
For Felix University freshman Jack and his fellow pledges of Zeta Alpha Rho (ZAP), they expect nothing less than one hazing incident after the next from their fraternity brothers when Hell Night approaches. Instructed to spend the night on deserted Riverpark Island, their only way back to the mainland being a bridge closed off by a locked chain-link gate, the guys' initial scavenger hunt is quickly broken up by the appearance of a mystery killer dressed in a clown costume. Could the culprit be Sarah (Corie Ventura), the jealous girlfriend of frat president Tommy (Kaleo Quenzer)? Might it be Jack's clown-loving weirdo roommate Andy (John Pickle), who feels left out by not getting invited along to Hell Night? Perhaps the madman is none other than the college dean himself, Jackson Jones (Jim Eikner), who is being blackmailed by the students for sexual indiscretions. Could it be Jack's very own secret boyfriend, elder ZAP bro Roger (Michael Gravois)? Maybe it's Johnny Brooklyn (Jeff Capps), a just-escaped mental patient whom Dr. Calloway (Helen Bowman) is in search of. Or, is it the four ghosts (Sarah Ewell, Drew Smith, Sandy Kozik, J. Machado) of Fourth of July performers who wronged an audience member in 1984 and were mysteriously poisoned to death the next day? Maybe it's none of the above. After all, there are plenty more suspects to go around.
"Fraternity Massacre at Hell Island" will never be confused for a destined-to-endure classic, and yet, with a budget not even as big as a lot of people's annual salary, it is superior to the majority of watered-down and/or glossy genre fare released by major studios each year. Charming above all else, the film does a splendidly satirical, purposefully overacted and overwrought job of setting up the long line of suspects in a succession of opening scenes, each one more ridiculous than the last. By the time the group of lambs head to Riverpark Island and the dance-happy maniac clown shows up, the body count immediately starts rising by the minute as the characters run around and get into the sort of antics reserved for the Kids in the Hall or Broken Lizard troupe (the latter group, by the way, made a very similar horror spoof with 2004's "Club Dread
"). Not overly graphica lot of the bloodshed occurs off-screen, a sure sign of a low budgetbut high-spirited and involving all the same, the film manages to include everything from a character who speaks like Cameron Frye imitating Sloane Petersen's dad in 1986's "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" to an age-old "I've fallen and can't get up" gag that actually works. Also very funny: when Jack comes out to fellow survivor, token female Debbi (Ashley Howell), and tells her she can be his gal pal, she questions what the difference is between that label and a "fag hag." His dead-pan response? "About 150 pounds."
Exuberantly acted (everyone, it seems, is in on the jokey tone, yet wisely never give away that they know it's funny), moodily shot by cinematographer Ryan Parker, and making terrific use out of its Memphis, Tennessee, locations (including Mud Island River Park, standing in for fictional Riverpark Island), "Fraternity Massacre at Hell Island" is all in good fun, and fun it is. As Jack gets the courage to finally come out to his friends while discovering in the process that two of them are also in a relationship, a nice message about tolerance and acceptance is made without getting in the way of the humor-based mystery at hand. Also of note: a catchy soundtrack from infectious indie rock band The Central Standards, their music well-showcased while fitting organically with the rest of the film. "Fraternity Massacre at Hell Island" proves that with enthusiasm, determination and resourcefulness, millions of dollars don't matter much in the grand scheme of things. Many of today's major Hollywood releases could stand to learn a thing or two from the makers of this unassuming little treat.