★★★ out of ★★★★★
Murder, ghosts, and astral projection!
Directed by Scott Dunn.
When Hollywood studios talk about making a “low-budget” movie they’re still probably talking about a movie with a budget of over a million bucks. James Wan’s Saw (2004) was considered low-budget and cost about $1.2 million. John Carpenter’s original Halloween (1978) had a budget of only $325,000, but those were 1978 dollars. If you take inflation into account, both of those movies cost about the same to make.
Low-budget in the indie world is a different story. The massive hit, The Blair Witch Project (1999), was made for a scant $60,000 and took the world by storm.
Writer/director Scott Dunn and his partner in crime/producer, Gina Gomez, are becoming masters of the art of micro-budget movies. We’re talking more along the lines of Paranormal Activity (2007) and its $15,000 price tag. The moviemaking duo’s sophomore feature film, Mandao of the Dead, cost even less, but you’d never know it.
The story revolves around Jay Mandao [Scott Dunn; Schlep (2016)], the underachieving son of a failed cereal executive. Living off the small royalty checks from the one mildly-popular breakfast cereal his dad managed to come up with, Jay gets stuck taking care of his 33 year old nephew-by-marriage, Jackson [Sean McBride; Schlep (2016)], who’s even more of a slacker than Jay.
Right around the time Jay discovers he has a talent for astral projection, Jackson’s disturbed ex-girlfriend Maeve [Marisa Hood; Broken Things (2012)] murders an unfortunate blood bank employee [David Gallegos; 2-Headed Shark Attack (2012)]. Using Jay’s new ability to project his spirit through time as well as space, the boys try to prevent the murder from ever happening.
All of the actors in Mandao of the Dead did a great job. The two brightest lights being Gina Gomez as the constantly-taken-advantage-of Uber driver, Fer, and Sean Liang [TV’s 9-1-1 (2018)] as Jay’s astral projecting cousin, Andy. Scott Dunn sometimes comes across as being pretty rough on Sean McBride’s character, Jackson, but there’s probably fair bit of resentment built up there. After all, Jackson has been sleeping rent-free in a tent in Jay’s living room for a long time.
The dialog flows naturally, for the most part, and the story is humorous and charming. It’s not a particularly speedy tale, though. I suspect a more ruthless editing hand could tighten things up here and there and improve the pacing but, since we’re talking about a movie about two slackers, the easy-going pace didn’t seem entirely out of place.
The production quality of this movie is what’s truly impressive. The camera work is well done. The score, while occasionally a tiny bit monotonous, is decent overall. The set dressing and lighting is superb; it has to be to keep the movie looking fresh when it’s very nearly being shot entirely in single location (Jay’s apartment). And the sound quality — a personal pet peeve of mine when done poorly — is excellent regardless of where the scenes are being filmed. Interiors, exteriors, in the car, it’s flawless. Kudos to the sound department!
Would I recommend Mandao of the Dead to everyone? Probably not. Micro-budget films are lost on folks who need giant movies with massive explosions and crazy special effects. However, if you’re a fan of indie horror/comedies and enjoy seeing a super tiny budget being pushed to its limit through sheer force of will, this movie is a good time. I, for one, will be keeping an eye on Team Dunn as they continue to hone their craft.
Mandao of the Dead is currently available for streaming from Amazon’s Prime Video.