If you're a regular reader of The Independent Critic, then Travis Betz may already be a familiar name to you.
As writer/director of 2008's "Sunday," Betz managed to surprise everyone, including himself, by landing a film on my coveted "Top 10" list for 2008 with the quirky, romantic "Sunday."
So, you can imagine my own delight when I discovered that Betz's latest film, "Lo," had been accepted as an Official Selection for the 2009 Indianapolis International Film Festival.
I first became familiar with the fine folks at Drexel Box Productions thanks to "Little Big Top," a 2006 film directed by "Lo" co-star Ward Roberts that played during the Heartland Film Festival. Since then, I've anxiously awaited virtually any project bearing the Drexel Box name or featuring any Drexel Box regulars like Jessica Petelle, Ward Roberts, Travis Betz, Christina Mauro and a few others.
"Lo" is a love story of the lowest common denominator. The film centers around Justin (Ward Roberts), a loser whose days seemingly revolve around a job that he hates and the house salad/no dressing he orders during his lunch break.
Then, April (Sarah Lassez) enters his life and transforms it into a hopeful and happy existence...at least until the day she is kidnapped by demons. The grief-stricken Justin finds a summoning book that April has left behind and summons a demon whose name has been marked by a red ribbon in the book, the demon Lo.
From here on, Justin goes through hell, quite literally, to retrieve the woman that he loves.
Can Justin save April from her hellish fate?
Will the demon Lo lure Justin out from the safety of the circle he created for the summoning?
Will Justin himself be destroyed?
From singing demons to talking hands, tortured humans to demonic show tunes, Justin and the demon Lo will go head-to-head and soul-to-soul in a battle of wits and a battle of heart and, oh yeah, a battle filled with a whole lot of laughs.
While "Lo" never quite soars to the heights of Betz's "Sunday," it's arguably a more ambitious film in which Betz stretches the limits of what can be done technically and in terms of production design on a modest budget while providing for independent filmmakers a stellar example of how to assemble a quality, technically proficient film with largely convincing special effects on a limited budget.
From the special effects make-up wizardry of Tom Devlin to Steve Hollenbeck's larger-than-life sound design down to the deceptively simple production design of Amy Montgomery, "Lo" maintains a naturalistic simplicity about it that remains completely captivating despite one's acute awareness that much of the film's goings on occur within one quite small staging area. It's textbook filmmaking in how to make the most effective use of limited space.
Of course, "Lo" wouldn't work at all without a convincing cast and, as he did with "Sunday," Betz has assembled a fine one here led by the devilishly good Ward Roberts. Roberts, a Hoosier native from Peru, is one of those rare actors who can play both extremes of the emotional spectrum, sometimes in the very same scene. In essence, this is what he's called upon to do here as Justin, a seemingly nerdish young man whose boldness is called into action in his quest to retrieve April from the depths of hell. Much like he did in the critically praised horror flick "Joshua," also directed by Betz, Roberts takes what could have easily been a one-dimensional character and brings him vividly to life.
There's a scene approximately midway through "Lo" that brought to mind the need for additional time experiencing the relationship between Justin and April. In the scene, set on Christmas, Justin has just given April a "significant" gift and she's clearly taken aback by it and trying to integrate it into her limited frame of reference for humanity. It is in this scene that "Lo" gets a foundation of humanity that could have been fostered just a touch more, perhaps allowing for a greater bond to be established with the leading characters. Sarah Lassez, whose indie resume includes Gregg Araki's "Nowhere," is enchanting as this demon turned sexy beast who dabbles in emotions she's never experienced before.
Jeremiah Birkett, all decked out as the demon "Lo," serves up a commanding presence with just a pinch of feeling that makes this feisty demon a hypnotic presence to behold.
Devin Barry, Aaron Gaffey and Larissa Deckert turn in strong performances in the film's supporting roles.
As the closing credits rolled at film's end during its Indianapolis International Film Festival Screening, I looked over at Travis Betz and said simply 'You have a seriously warped mind."
Warped, original, imaginative and quite funny, "Lo" is a great film for fans of truly independent cinema and for filmmakers who want to explore the limitless possibilities of creating a technically proficient and entertaining film with limited resources.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic