Sunday, January 15, 2023

Heartland of Darkness (2022) [f/1989]

... aka: Blood Church
... aka: Fallen Angels

Directed by:
Eric Swelstad

It usually takes awhile to plan a film, shoot a film, make it through post production and then find a distributor... but it usually doesn't take 33 YEARS! Just why this particular film took so long to finally make it to the masses is a long story (laid out in much greater detail than I'm about to in the extensive Blu-ray extras) but it basically boils down to money. Shot on 16mm around Columbus, Ohio by Ohio State University graduate student Swelstad in 1989, apparently all of the money was used during production and there were no funds left to do post production work. Despite doing some PR in the Ohio press around 1990, the film (then called Fallen Angels) was effectively stalled before some technical issues could be fixed and a final edit could be completed. In 1992, it was being promoted yet again, this time under the new title Blood Church but nothing happened aside from a poster and a promotional video. In the early 2000s, around half an hour of raw footage taken from some VHS source leaked online, prompting some renewed interest.

Jump ahead a few more years to 2007 when a new trailer, website and promotional materials emerged for the film, this time promising a release sometime in the near future under yet another new title, Heartland of Darkness. As for the "near future," that turned out to be an additional 15 years! But, hey, it's now finally finished and has been released to Blu-ray and streaming platforms by Visual Vengeance and Wild Eye Releasing.

Widowed editor Paul Henson (Dino Tripodis - way too young for this role despite the gray hair streak attempt), who lost his wife to a drunk driver and is now raising his teen daughter Christine (Sharon Klopfenstein) as a single dad, leaves his position at the Chicago Tribune and moves to the small town of Copperton, Ohio to take over their newspaper, the Copperton Chronicle. As father and daughter prepare their new office, they're immediately greeted by several locals looking for work, including experienced secretary Evelyn Spyker (Mary Alice Demas) and former New York Times staff writer Shannon Cornell (Shanna Thomas). Both are hired on the spot without so much as showing a resume. The lucky breaks continue when, on his very first day there, Paul stumbles onto a potentially huge news story after a disemboweled corpse is found in a field. The sheriff (Lee Page) claims it was some kind of drug-related murder but neither Paul nor Shannon buy his theory and immediately begin looking into matters.

It turns out that Copperton is a town overrun with devil-worshipers and nearly everyone, from the church regulars to the district attorney all the way up to the mayor, is under the thumb of the evil Reverend Donovan (Nick Baldasare) and his MIB-style posse of sunglasses-sporting goons. In addition to regularly sacrificing victims / acquiring souls for Satan, Donovan doesn't hesitate murdering and mutilating anyone who rubs him the wrong way. That not only includes detractors and snoops but also anyone who tries to move to another town or so much as make a simple mistake that could potentially expose them. When Paul and Shannon start publishing stories suggesting a murderous cult may be at work in the area, they also paint huge targets on their backs.

After a teenage girl is murdered, a general store owner disappears and someone breaks into a hospital, kills a nurse and then steals a dozen newborn infants, Reverend Kane (John Dunleavy), who's been going around the country busting Satanists, shows up at the newspaper office to offer his assistance. He, Paul and Shannon go to a mental asylum to visit Dobson, who sacrificed a bunch of babies years earlier, and are pointed in the direction of a remote rock quarry. There, the men discover a bunch of bones, human remains and a pentagram. As for receiving any help from local authorities, they may as well forget it. Not only is nearly everyone in Copperton in the cult and marked as such with an upside down cross branded on their wrist, but so are many people in the upper echelons of state politics are willing to cover for them. I knew Ohio had one of the most corrupt state governments in the entire country but I had no idea it was to this extent!

After going to report his findings to the (it turns out devil-worshipping) Ohio attorney general Richard Davidson (Wesley Coleman), Paul finds himself being hunted down by all kinds of cultists. During a car chase, they attempt to shoot him with a machine gun and then he's attacked in a store by a mulleted bodybuilder with a blowtorch he unfortunately never turns on. Making it home, he discovers his apartment has been ransacked and Christine has been kidnapped. They then take their evidence to the Governor, who hasn't yet been converted, but he's assassinated before he can get anything done. That leaves Paul and Shannon with the difficult task of taking out Reverend Donovan and saving Christine before she becomes the next sacrifice in a black mass ceremony.

Linnea Quigley is also here in a half dozen scenes as Julia Francine, a high school history teacher with a hilariously inappropriate wardrobe. When she's not filling her student's heads with glowing positive commentary about Aleister Crowley and Hitler (!), she's being sent out by Donovan to work her seductive charms on the newcomers. Quigley was obviously hired for a few days to be the name draw and that did prove to be an apt decision eventually. I'm not sure there would have been much interest in ever releasing this had she not been in it as it's been primarily promoted as her "lost" film for years now. Though Quigley's screen time is limited, she's a real asset to the production, not only because she's her usual cute self and has two topless scenes but also because she has a certain on-screen charisma that's otherwise sorely lacking from the otherwise amateurish cast.

While the film suffers from all of the usual pratfalls associated with first time filmmaking, some aspects come as an unexpected surprise. For starters, this is genuinely ambitious and actually not too poorly made for an ultra low budget regional film. There are tons of location changes and they've done a fairly nice job with both the pacing and establishing the 'evil town' scenario using limited means. Working in the political angle was interesting, there's quite a bit of action (not all of it well-executed, but it's still there!) and the script has enough narrative drive and plot complication to keep you watching.

However, all of the effort, good intentions and high aspirations are undermined throughout by unconvincing and, in many cases, appallingly bad acting. Aside from Quigley and perhaps Baldasare, whose very theatrical, pseudo-camp turn as the main bad guy is somewhat fun, most of the rest of the principal performers are dreadful. It's been awhile since I've seen so much wooden dialogue delivery and deer-in-headlights facial expressions in just one film! Seeing how this was made by college students, you'd figure they'd have access to some moderately talented theater majors they could have cast instead of who they ended up with. But, to be completely fair, the (male) lead does at least try and a few of the minor roles; the secretary and attorney general, for example, are adequately performed. Still, the acting as a whole does bring the film down.

I'm not entirely sure of the extent of post production work that had to be done to prep this release, but it's obvious some CGI "enhancements" were recently added, including some awful-looking lightning, machine gun fire and an explosion. A lot of the people who worked on this had also worked on Beyond Dream's Door (1988), another OSU student film, only that one actually received a VHS release here through VidAmerica in 1990 and was also released in Canada, Japan and other countries before its 2021 Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray release.

Despite the highly uneven nature of the film, one thing that cannot be criticized is the work Visual Vengeance / Wild Eye have put into the Blu-ray release. They've really gone all out with the extras. Included are a new 40-minute documentary Deeper Into the Darkness featuring interviews with director Swelstad (who also directed the doc), Baldasare, producer / cinematographer Scott Spears and producer Thomas Baumann, two commentary tracks (one with Swelstad, Baldasare, Spears and composer Jay Woelfel), a new 2021 Quigley interview, a 20 minute interview Quigley did for a local TV show called Columbus Close-Up to promote the film in 1989, a 37-minute Fallen Angels workprint, a 12-minute Blood Church promo video and so much more.

Currently listed on most websites as a 1992 release, I was unable to verify any actual release (theatrical or home video) prior to this 2022 release.

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