Into the Lion's Den

Certificate: 18
Running time: 82 mins
Director: Dan Lantz
Starring: Ronnie Kroell, Jesse Archer, Kristen-Alexzander Griffith
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Country: USA

When three friends travel from West LA to New York they opt on stopping at every little bar and dive along the way to further their “Great American Experience” however when they pull up at a bar called The Lion’s Den they bargain for a little more small town America than anything could have prepared them for.

Director Dan Lantz has something of an eclectic filmography, from Ninja Babes from Space through Bloodlust Zombies (a film that Knifed in Venice has shockingly yet to feature) to where we are now which is essentially a road trip/thriller-come-horror that is Into the Lion’s Den.  The two genres have very distinct expectations, some of which Lantz subverts beautifully and others which he plays towards in order to draw the audience and their expectations in.  The road trip, for example, is a genre for outsiders.  People who have no place in the world and in being isolated from an accepting society find themselves in the liminal realm of “the road”.  Michael (Kroell), Johnny (Archer) and Griffith (Ted) have a place in the world, a life and community in the heart of gay (and most importantly) accepting USA yet take to the road with the destruction of Michael’s relationship and in turn forces upon them the dangers of the world.  This is a common device in horror cinema also, though typically those in peril are predominantly female and therefore physically capable of being overpowered according to traditional patriarchal cinema.  ITLD blends these two genres incredibly well, and even manages to toss in a little of the Hixploitation (big kudos there as anyone who knows me knows I love me some Hixploitation) and plays the tension incredibly slow and well throughout.  It's pacing deliberate and perfectly laid out to create narrative tension.  The film might have only cost $75,000 to make but it’s thanks to the Philip Malaczewski script (amazingly his first credit) and the claustrophobic cinematography under Lantz’s control, by Steve Cameron looks and feels like a film costing a lot more.

Jesse Archer (as Johnny) gives a commanding central performance.  Regardless of sexuality it’s fair to say that most people know someone like Johnny, a little dangerous, risky with his opinions and openly predatory towards those who arouse him.  Archer plays him straight allowing the script to paint him as a little too old for the rodeo but it’s Archer’s sincerity in the role that bypasses the performance being a sad one, he is what he believes he is, it's an honest and poweful performance.  Ronnie Kroell and Kristen-Alexzander Griffith give solid performances in what’s billed as a trio of leads but it’s Archer who owns the lion’s share of the limelight.  Michael McFadden (as Frank) is menacing.  Films of these nature demand a commandeering alpha, a predator of equal strength but would operates outside of man made laws, someone who answers only to his own id and McFadden is that with room to spare.  His interactions with Archer and Jodie Shultz (who plays his wife Betty) are almost like a debauched Shakespearian power struggle and convey a complex and incredibly explosive relationship that gives so many dimensions to what could be a two dimensional character.

In recent years “gay cinema” has made major steps into the mass public domain with offers like Shortbus and Bol but so many of them are about being gay.  Central narratives that deal purely in sexuality are no more advanced that a film that's simply about being black or Irish or jewish.  The cinematic audience, by and large, are a lot more sophisticated than that these days and demand more.  What Into the Lion’s Den does well is what The Man Who Loved Yngve did so well which is make a film that’s about more than just being gay.  Into the Lion’s Den dares to be a genre film, one that’s blind to sexuality in as far as the narrative conventions are universal and in doing so creates a film that’s better than a simple gay road trip movie.  What Into the Lion’s Den does wonderfully is what all the best Horror and Exploitation films do well which is be brave enough to strive for greatness, to be daring and uncompromising.  It succeeds in so many ways.  A tense, unflinching and atmospheric ride into the heart of darkness that’ll make you think twice about which establishment you open a tab in.


James Gracey said...

This sounds pretty intriguing, John. I especially like what you said about the road trip genre being peopled by outsiders with no place in the world. When combined with horror, this can make for pretty tense viewing. Will keep an eye out for this one. Thanks! Hope you're well.

John Baxter said...

Was pleasantly surprised in places. Yeah I think most people who end up on the road is due to a lack of placing in society, it really ties into horror cinema with the isolation et al. Hope you're well mate, you busy?

Jodie Shultz said...

Thrilled that you liked it and very appreciative of your positive comments. Excellent Review. Wish I had seen this years ago. Following you on Twitter now. Peace <3 Jodie Shultz, a.k.a. 'Betty'

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