Geek Doc Double Feature: Journey To Planet X (2012) & The American Scream (2012)

journey to planet x poster A few weeks back, a friend asked for geeky Netflix documentary suggestions. I rattled off several including King Of Kong, Chasing Ghosts and The Rock-afire Explosion only to find out that they’re not actually on the streaming service any more. Heck, you can’t even get a DVD copy of the latter two. Anyway, I wanted to check out a few newer geek doc offerings and recently knocked out two, one I’d never heard of and one that’s gotten a lot of praise from the horror community.

First up, we’ve got Journey To Planet X, a film that follows two guys named Troy Bernier (left on the poster) and Eric Swain who have joined forces to create a sci-fi short film. Directed by Myles Kane and Joshua Koury, this doc gets into both men’s filmmaking background which revolves around Swain creating short sci-fi and fantasy films on a homemade green screen. Eventually he made friends with Bernier who joined in first as an actor and later as a creative partner. The main thrust of this film follows the pair as they work on a longer form sci-fi film that would not only include a larger cast and longer run time, but alsoutilize better technology and use more practical locations when possible.

I enjoyed this film on several levels. On one hand, you’ve got this story about two guys trying to make an ambitious film. It’s a  different take on things like Son of Rambow and Raiders! both of which I loved. That desire to create something and putting in the work to make it happen is something I can relate to, but also find incredibly admirable.

And then there’s the dynamics between Swain and Bernier that I find fascinating. Swain was pretty happy doing things the way he had done them for years until Bernier came in and wanted to up their game. There’s definitely some friction there that isn’t a huge part of the film, but is certainly there. As the film progresses, Bernier becomes a more and more interesting character to me. He takes the project very seriously, which makes sense, but he seems to become more obsessed as it progresses. There’s something of a disconnect for me in this because he’s making a film with some wooden acting and CGI effects that look straight out of an early 90s PC game. But he doesn’t see any of that and considers this film to be a calling card that will move him on into a new realm of success and filmmaking. On one hand, that attitude was probably necessary to get the film finished, shown at a viewing party where it got a lot of unintentional laughs and even a festival appearance, but at a certain point you wonder how connected to reality he is.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t really matter though, does it? These guys got what they wanted and made a movie that got shown to people. That’s something I wish I could do and will maybe actually make happen in the next few years if I can tap into some portion of Bernier’s passion or obsession or whatever you want to call it. As far as I’m concerned, though, there’s a lot more personal value in Koury and Kane’s documentary about these guys than their movie. Showcasing the struggles of creativity, bringing a film to life and doing their damndest to make it happen is a lot more engaging to me than watching the results of all that. It’s that whole, “life’s a journey not a destination” trip. Plus, the doc filmmakers were clearly working with better cameras than the filmmakers because this film looks fantastic.

The American Scream I decided to watch The American Scream, Michael Stephenson’s doc about three families in a Massachusetts town that build huge haunts in the yards for Halloween because I’d heard a lot about it, but it actually made a solid double feature with Journey because both movies showcase people pursuing their particular arts with varying levels of obsession.

The three Fairhaven-based stars include Victor, a dad who’s something of a haunt perfectionist, father and son team Richard and Matthew and Manny who does it because he knows the people in his neighborhood love it. Manny’s pretty straightforward and seems to do it for the love of the game which means he’s not featured nearly as much as the others. Matthew and Richard have some friction between them which garners more attention, but Victor’s the real star of the show.

Not only does Victor have the most detailed and complex haunt of the group, but he’s also got the most drama surrounding him. Of his two daughters, one’s really into the whole thing and the other isn’t. But there’s some sadness because dad’s desire to keep the yard clear for Halloween lead to them not getting the swing set they wanted. Meanwhile, his wife is very supportive of this whole thing, but it definitely sounds like there’s some rationalization going on there with how much money he spends on this whole thing — we see him drop $200 on a coffin — especially in light of the revelation that he knows he’s getting laid off. I had a real problem with him at this point because that just seems like burying your head in the sand and ignoring your impending problems in favor of doing something you love. But by the end there’s some vindication. I won’t get into it, but I actually gasped when they went back to him after Halloween and revealed his post-lay off plans.

Stephenson not only starred in Troll 2, but went on to create the documentary based on that film called Best Worst Movie. He does a great job of capturing and presenting real scenes without laying any kind of judgement over them. You can argue all day long that the way a doc is edited may or may not convey a certain mission statement from the director in order to present a certain kind of story, but to me it felt like he was just telling this tale and letting the audience judge. Personally, I found myself wishing these guys could figure out a more consistent outlet for their artistic creativity that happens more than once a year, but that probably misses the point to some extent. 

On a personal note, this movie brought back a lot of memories from my trick r treating days. When I was growing up, my neighbor Denny who’s probably 8 or so years older than me used to decorate his garage and get his pals to dress up like various movie slashers. I think the first time I ever saw a version of Leatherface was his friend running out from behind a set of hedges with a chainless chainsaw. Even though I’d watch them prepare, there was still no way I’d go in there. I don’t like being scared in real life and I’m not even that big of a candy fan. No thanks. There was another house further away that I remember coming upon a time or two as well that made an even bigger show of things with items (maybe people) coming down from the trees in the yard.

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