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South of Heaven 
Written by: on October 7th, 2011

Theatrical Release Date: USA, 2008
Director: J.L. Vara
Writer: J.L. Vara
Cast: Shea Whigham, Diora Baird, Jon Gries, Thomas Jay Ryan, Adam Nee, Aaron Nee, Elina Löwensohn

DVD released: October 11th, 2011
Approximate running time: 97 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Rating: NR
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital Stereo English
Subtitles: N/A
DVD Release: Synapse Films
Region Coding: Region 0 NTSC
Retail Price: $19.95

Synopsis: A younger brother becomes the victim of two vaudevillian hit men’s brutality, when this mistake him for his brother, who is responsible for kidnapping the daughter of a sadistic crime boss.

Far too many films are bound by the limitations of the genre in which they are set it and the resources that they have to work with. And nowhere is this more evident than independent productions that are made outside of the Hollywood system, especially those films that are rooted in the Horror film genre. Even more frustrating is trying to find a independent film that surprises you with its inventiveness or have the ability to go against the grain and twist conventional themes on their head. So to my surprise, all the preconceived notions that I had going into South of Heaven, most of which were due to its haphazard image on its DVD cover, where ultimately all ill founded.

Content wise this film can be best summed up as a cross between 1940’s Film Noir and a extremely demented version of Looney Toons. This film’s plot is driven by the gruesome acts that are exacted by the characters which populate this grueling tale about mistaken identity. And these are not just random acts of violence per say, since each new moment of carnage somehow tops the previous act of brutality. Fingers are cut off, a young girl’s neck is broken while she is being raped by her captor and a man’s face is burned in a trash can that was ignited by the pages of a novel, that he had put all of his blood, sweat and tears into. Also though there are only minimal moments of nudity that quickly flash across the screen. The film still does a superb job maximizing its female casts more than ample assets. Another area in which this film excels is its subversive dialog, which is laced with some well placed satirical humor.

From a production stand point, there is not a single area in which this film falters. The stylized visuals bring this most unusual world in which these characters live in to the utmost clarity. There is never a issues with pacing, since the narrative moves along briskly from one revelation to the next. Performance wise the entire are all very good in their respective roles, with this film’s standout performance coming from Shea Whigham (‘Boardwalk Empire’) in the role of Mad Dog Mantee, a vicious killer without a conscious. Another performance of note is Elina Löwensohn (Six Ways to Sunday) in the role of this film’s femme fatale.

The DVD:

Synapse Films presents South of Heaven in an anamorphic widescreen that preserves the film’s original aspect ratio. Colors look nicely saturated, black levels look consistently good and details look sharp throughout. There are no problems with compression and edge enhancement is never an issue.

This release comes with two audio options, a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix in English and a Dolby Digital Stereo mix in English. Both audio mixes sound very good as dialog is always clear and everything sounds balanced. The main difference between the two audio mixes is that the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix in English sound more robust and does a slightly better job with the more ambient aspects of the soundtrack.

Extras for this release include three audio commentaries, the first one with screenwriter / director  J.L. Vara, producers Brian Udovich and Jason Polstein, cinematographer Darren Genet, the second with the cast and the third audio commentary with film critics Todd Brown, Scott Weinberg and Devin Faraci. There is a lot of ground covered throughout these three audio commentaries, with the strongest of the three audio commentaries being the one with J.L. Vara, Brian Udovich, Jason Polstein and Darren Genet, who does a superb job covering the more technical aspects of this production. The audio commentary with the cast offers up a different point of view about working on this production, since most of which is covered in this one has to do with each participants recollections for their respective roles. The audio commentary with the trio of critics has a few interesting insights and not much more. Rounding out the extras are three short films also directed by J.L. Vara, the first one titled ‘Miserable Orphan’ (37 minutes 54 seconds – letterboxed widescreen), the second one titled ‘Azole Dkmuntch’ (28 minutes – 1:33:1 full frame) and the third one titled ‘A Boy and His Fetus’ (14 minutes 51 seconds – 1:33:1 full frame). Though these three short films lack the polish of South of Heaven, there are still a very worthy inclusion since they give a glimpse how far J.L. Vara has come as filmmaker. Overall South of Heaven gets a first rate release from Synapse Films.

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