For the first time in its four-year history, Austin's Fantastic Fest decided to premiere a handful of its titles on the internet, thereby giving the hardcore genre fans of the world a chance to sample what this festival is all about. One of those titles was South of Heaven, which I decided to watch online, so as to give myself the option of seeing something else once the festival began. Plus I figured, hey, if the movie's are already posted (albeit temporarily) on the net, then how "top-grade" could they be? Surely the FF crew would save the BEST stuff for the actual festival, right?

Wrong.

I finished the film at about 3:30am and I immediately dropped the following email to the Fantastic Fest programmers, and this is a censored-yet-direct quote from yours truly:

"Just finished watching South of Heaven, and I can't remember the last non-horror flick I was this jazzed about. It's the Coens meets Sam Fuller while watching Looney Tunes and making an '80s mix tape full of The Smiths and Depeche Mode. I (freak)ing loved it."



As is often the case where above-average indie flicks are concerned, the best assets of Heaven should be left for you to discover on your own, but here's the basic gist: There are these two brothers, see, only they never actually have any scenes together. One is dealing with a wonderfully twisted film noir story involving a leggy brunette, a mysterious manuscript, and a pair of persistent thugs who are as mercilessly violent as they are amusingly well-spoken. (And wait till you see their costumes.) The other brother has found himself stuck as an unwilling sidekick to a stunningly blood-thirsty lunatic called Mad Dog Manatee. These guys have a pretty young lady as a hostage, you see, and they're just gonna keep sending fresh fingers to her daddy until some form of ransom is delivered. Yeah. And I won't even get into the songs, the sweetness, and the fact that one character becomes a dark avenger straight out of Darkman.....

So yeah: It's a weird little movie. Fortunately it's also smart, silly, and a little sick. South of Heaven is a comedy, a western noir daydream, a bloody thriller, a kooky cartoon, a romance and (yes) even sort of a musical. (Kinda.) This is a movie that reveres the stock characters and conventions of classic film noir while managing to create a fanciful universe that's both familiar and unique. South of Heaven is jammed with strangely funny side-tracks, powerfully enjoyable monologues, and a costume / color scheme / production design concoction that feels like Miller's Crossing meets Dick Tracy on the Universal backlot of, say, 1947. What may throw others off about South of Heaven is precisely what I enjoyed about it: the contradictions. And by that I mean this: You just don't know where the flick is going. Early scenes of cruelty and carnage lead to later sequences involving intimacy and loyalty -- but director J.L. Vara never forgets to add a wink, a nudge, or a cock-eyed smile to the proceedings. And then things get all crazy again. This film is a stew thrown together by the best sort of movie geek: The kind that actually has the skills to make his own movie.

The cast is stellar throughout, although Shea "Mad Dog" Whigham delivers a cult-flick performance for the ages and I'm not kidding, the score is pitch-perfect, and (again) the adorably off-kilter "look" of the movie should prove appealing to all sorts of hardcore film fans. South of Heaven will probably end up as one of those "acquired taste" cult flicks, in that it's certainly not for everyone, but I for one was thrilled when the film won an Audience Award at Fantastic Fest. Not because I need to have my opinion validated (although that felt nice for a second), but because I really (freak)in' enjoyed this movie and I simply wanted other folks to do the same thing. Since the movie has yet to land a distributor, it might take a while for it to hit your local DVD store, but please do keep an eye out for South of Heaven. If there's any justice (or intelligence) in Hollywood, you folks shouldn't have to wait THAT long for some sort of release.