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2013 saw the relatively unheralded release of a low-budget creature feature called Big Ass Spider! It was silly but it was also huge fun, and it was obvious that the makers had a fondness for the material that kept things from being too silly, or derivative of other similar movies. Then in 2015, SyFy brought us the latest in their ongoing series of movies designed to make audiences want to pluck out their own eyes, or take psychotropic drugs, in an effort to forget what they’ve just seen. That movie was Lavalantula, a Sharknado-style offering that accentuated the comedy while still providing a fair few thrills along the way.

Both these movies were directed and edited by Mike Mendez, and if you’ve followed his career since his debut at Sundance, Killers (1996), then you’ll already know that even if he’s got the most risible of material to work with, somehow he still manages to elevate it beyond its limited expectations. He’s a director who’s able to take the most unlikeliest of projects and put a massive spin on them. This doesn’t make them into out-and-out classics, but it does make these movies far more bearable to watch than they have any right to be. So if you like low-budget features that are low on concept and even lower on potential, but are still enjoyable for a reason you can’t quite put your finger on, chances are it’s a Mike Mendez movie you’re watching.

The Last Heist (2016) / D: Mike Mendez / 84m

Cast: Henry Rollins, Torrance Coombs, Victoria Pratt, Michael Aaron Milligan, Mark Kelly, Kristina Klebe, John J. York, Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Camilla Jackson, Nick Principe, Ken Lyle, Courtney Compton, Fay DeWitt, John O’Brien

What are the odds? You’re the leader of a group of heavily-armed bank robbers intent on stealing something very valuable from the vault of a decommissioned bank, and you discover that one of the civilians in the building – and the very one who isn’t a hostage – is a serial killer who is equally intent on killing everyone and taking their eyes as trophies. How does something like that happen? Why does it happen? Because this is the main idea behind The Last Heist, a movie that mixes horror, crime and action all together in a hodgepodge of a script that seriously doesn’t know how to actually mix them all together in the first place. Give thanks to writer Guy Stevenson for managing to be so diligent in messing things up from the start.

But then give thanks to Mike Mendez for taking Stevenson’s messy script and injecting it with some much needed energy and directorial awareness. What he does that is so remarkable, is that he doesn’t try to fix the things that can’t be fixed. Take for example, the bank’s location. To get to it, you have to enter a security code that opens a gate, then walk through what looks like a loading area into a small square where the bank itself is located. But this doesn’t look like a bank; instead it looks like an old rundown supermarket that’s recently closed. There’s a sign above the door that is never clearly seen – probably because it doesn’t have the word bank in it. And inside the bank it’s no better. It looks equally rundown, and there are corridors in back and floors above that seem to go on for ever. Seriously, the vault feels like it’s miles away. But Mendez isn’t interested in trying to make things look correct. He’s got his sets and he uses them to his best advantage, but he’s not focused on them. He’s got other things to worry about.

Mainly, that’s the cast. Mendez wisely concentrates on the performances, and in particular on often small moments within the action that offer a surprising amount of depth, depth that was unlikely to have been in Stevenson’s script originally. Rollins, naturally, is the serial killer, who does what he does because God has told him to. When he claims his first victim inside the bank, the unfortunate Tracey (Klebe), he does so with a calmness of manner that is eerily unnerving. As she bleeds out, he recites a monologue about the darkness within everyone, and his gentle tone and sympathetic ministrations are at odds with the grisly nature of his trophy collecting. Both actors are good here, and the scene is unexpectedly moving as Tracey fights against dying until she doesn’t have any strength left to do so. There are other moments like these dotted throughout the movie, as Mendez lets the characters reveal different sides of themselves, and though not everyone benefits from this kind of attention, there’s enough introspection between the action beats to offer a different perspective on things.

That said though, Mendez is lumbered with a number of clumsy plot developments that either muddy the waters or seem out of place, especially one very late reveal that feels like it was tacked on during shooting. Elsewhere, and once the body count inside the bank mounts up, Rollins is allowed to do his thing with impunity, while outside, first cop on the scene, Detective Pascal (Pratt), has to contend with a couple of comedy cops who want to go in guns blazing, and who act like they’re both six year olds who should be on Ritalin. Mendez is very good at strengthening the humour in his movies, and there are examples of very dark comedy scattered about in The Last Heist, but on this occasion the cops’ juvenile behaviour is another problem he chooses to ignore. It’s frustrating when things like that happen, but overall the rest of the movie, despite its failings, still feels like it’s a better movie than it is, and Mendez makes it so through sheer determination and no small amount of directorial wizardry.

Rating: 4/10 – a movie where individual scenes often carry more weight than the movie as a whole, the script for The Last Heist takes huge liberties with logic and credibility (as this kind of movie often does), but is saved by having Mendez in the director’s chair; with better-than-average performances, and a sure-footed sense of its own failings, Mendez elevates the material through his commitment to the project and a never-say-awful approach that helps immensely.

 

Don’t Kill It (2016) / D: Mike Mendez / 84m

Cast: Dolph Lundgren, Kristina Klebe, Tony Bentley, James Chalke, Miles Doleac

If you go down to the woods today… you’ll be possessed by a demon who leap frogs from person to person every time his host body is killed. This is what happens to a hapless hunter and his dog, and soon the small town of Chicory Creek (yes, really) is overrun by murders of whole families. But, wait. Help is at hand in the form of Jebediah Woodley (yes, really) (Lundgren), a demon hunter who knows exactly what the town is up against and who offers his services to the town sheriff (Bentley) and hometown girl-turned-FBI agent, Evelyn Pierce (Klebe). Of course, he’s taken for an interfering nutcase and promptly locked up, but when the sheriff and Evelyn see for themselves what the demon can do, their disbelief evaporates in seconds and they’re soon asking what can be done. Jebediah’s answer? Capture the demon while it’s in a human host, have someone willing to take fast-acting poison, and then get that person to kill the demon’s host body. The demon goes into the person who’s on the brink of dying, and its spirit is released, making it easy to capture and imprison.

Simple, huh? Well, in a year where we were advised not to breathe, think twice or look twice, or even hang up, not killing a murderous, psychopathic demon seems like a less than reasonable request, and naturally it proves more difficult than even Jebediah expects. Hampered by his own experiences, Jebediah is the kind of certain-minded hero who rarely gets it right until Lady Luck smiles on him and a solution to the problem of the demon is arrived at. Until that happens, the script has him carry around a large, heavy-looking net gun in the hopes of capturing the demon, while he gets to know Agent Pierce. The script here is slightly more polished than the one for The Last Heist – it doesn’t try to be more than what it is, for starters – but it still has no time for logic or credibility (it’s a middling supernatural version of The Hidden (1987), for Dolph’s sake), and it sprints from scene to scene with all the unsightly haste of a starving man at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Here, Mendez concentrates on the murders and making them as horrific as he can; and on the humour. Shotgun blasts and meat cleaver blows are shown with both clinical detachment and a surreal complicity made on the viewer’s behalf that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Mendez doesn’t shy away from showing the horror of these moments, and though the movie sheds “real” victims as it goes, those early scenes carry a surprising amount of intensity. He’s also able to draw out the comic absurdity of the situation, such as when the town pastor (Chalke) is exhorting Jebediah to leave his church. The pastor flings holy water at Jebediah from a small vial, but the amount that keeps coming out is way too much for the vial to hold. And when the pastor abjures Jebediah with the words, “The power of Christ compels you!”, our trusty hero replies, “I’m pretty sure that’s from The Exorcist“.

There are other moments where the humour rescues the drama, and stops the movie from being laudable merely for the impressive splatter effects, courtesy of special effects wizard Robert Kurtzman and his team. This time around, Mendez doesn’t concentrate as much on the performances, but instead he focuses on the pace and the rhythm of the movie, and in keeping the tone just this side of entirely ridiculous (even though it is). The result is a standard-narrative horror movie that belies its low-budget origins and bland location work to provide a more diverting and enjoyable Dolph Lundgren movie than most of us are used to. Lundgren himself is wryly amusing, and Klebe makes for a good foil for the aging action hero, but full marks must go to Tony Bentley, as the sheriff who leaves a major crime scene because he’s too scared and is never seen again. That’s a scene that shows Mendez’s skills as a director, and which is only marred by Klebe’s dialogue, which makes her sound desperate instead of authoritative. Again, Mendez overcomes several hurdles in his quest to make a better movie out of Don’t Kill It than it deserves, and he does so with style. He may not have the biggest budgets, or the casts he deserves, but Mendez is still able to overcome those problems thanks to his usual commitment and enthusiasm.

Rating: 4/10 – once again, Mendez’s involvement in a movie project means that it doesn’t turn out to be as bad as it could have done, and Don’t Kill It works far better than it has any right to; on the whole, still a bad movie, but flecked throughout with Mendez’s trademark attention to detail in one or two areas (and always to the movie’s benefit), and the occasional nod and a wink that says, “We know it’s bad, but hey, it could have been so much worse.”

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