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CLEARWATER (2003)

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Director: Andy Koontz

Starring: Randy Bowden, Andy Koontz, Julie Wand, Chris Koontz, Mike Vanyserloo, Jess Gullsvanson

Screenplay: Andy Koontz

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As a long-time fan of Cold Fusion Video Reviews, I was well aware of the phenomenon of “the screener” – those copies of low-budget films sent to reviewers in an effort to drum up publicity for productions that clearly can’t afford to buy it. I’d never received a screener myself, however (I had had feelers put out, but most of the film-makers I’d communicated with seemed to baulk at having to pay overseas shipping costs to get their work to me, which should give you a good idea of the budget most of these things are made for), prior to the arrival of Clear Water, aspiring horror director Andy Koontz’s first feature-length (well – almost-an-hour-length) production. To be honest, I wasn’t altogether sure I wanted to get into the business of reviewing screeners. Being asked to do so in the first place is a nice little ego rub, of course; and then there’s the greed factor (“Free films! Cool!”). However – another thing I’ve learned from visiting Cold Fusion is that many of these films really, really suck. It wasn’t the prospect of watching bad films that bothered me; it was the question of whether I was sufficiently thick-skinned to review such films as they deserved to be reviewed. While I don’t have any qualms about putting the boot hard and often into big-budget studio productions, I doubted my ability to treat these rookie efforts with a similar degree of honesty. So it was with some trepidation that I took the plunge, and slipped my copy of Clear Water into my VCR.

When I took it out again less than 60 minutes later, I was aware that I had just watched a fairly remarkable piece of low-budget film-making.

Clear Water opens with titles informing us of the estimated number of serial killers active in the United States, and the proportion of their victims who are never found. We then watch the abduction, beating and imprisonment of a young woman. At this point – thanks in part to the stark black and white photography – it feels as if Clear Water is shaping as another knock-off of Henry. Thankfully, however, there is much more originality to the film that that. The serial killer (played, with rather unnerving believability, by writer-director Koontz himself) photographs his victim, then settles down to write out a letter addressed to “Dear Jonathan”. The focus of the story then shifts, as we observe the morning routine of a thoroughly ordinary young man whom we learn is the Jonathan in question. When Jonathan, an architect, arrives home from work that evening, he finds a package on his doorstep. It contains the photographs of the abducted girl, the letter, which turns out to be a list of instructions, and an audiotape recorded by the killer. The fate of the unfortunate girl, Jonathan learns, first to his bewildered disbelief, then to his utter horror, is in his hands. He has been given seven days in which to find her and save her life. What the killer does not know, however – or does he? – is that a critical clue to the girl’s whereabouts has already been lost, Jonathan having glanced at it and tossed it aside without realising its significance. Assured that should he go to the police, the girl will die, Jonathan becomes almost paralysed with uncertainty; unable to help even if he were willing to try, and fully aware that the longer he delays taking action, the more the girl will suffer – and the closer she will come to her death….

As most of you would know, I don’t have much time for “jokey” horror films; ones that retreat into humour (or perhaps I should say, an attempt at humour) rather than tackle their issues head on; ones that actively discourage you from taking them seriously. Clear Water, in contrast, is an admirably straight piece of work – and a disturbing one. It captures the sick, fetishistic, ritual-bound world of the serial killer so well it becomes difficult to watch at times – even though most of the physical violence is kept offscreen. (The exception is the “rope” scene towards the end of the film, where in my opinion the camera is allowed to linger a little too long.) It also displays considerable psychological acuteness in its depiction of its killer and the way he goes about his business. The photographs of the girl that Jonathan receives show her face and hair covered in blood. Some of this is her own, but much of it is not: we have watched the killer slash open his hand and smear his own blood over his victim. This inclusion of self-punishment in his rites is an intriguing touch, making clear – as indeed does the compulsive, joyless way in which he sets about his “work” – that on one level at least, this is someone who truly does want to be stopped. And upon first glance, it would seem that the killer’s modus operandi is designed to bring about this very outcome, for not only does he choose a victim, he chooses a potential rescuer as well. That rescuer is provided with information that should lead to the locating and release of the abductee – if it happens that he “cares enough” (the killer’s own phrase) to exert himself to save a total stranger. The girl whose sufferings we witness is not the killer’s first target. He has played this game before, we learn, and to date none of his victims have been rescued. The implication is that the individuals chosen previously to play saviour have not cared; that the earlier victims have died at least in part because of the apathy of their townspeople. However, there is an intriguing level of ambiguity to all of this, which is introduced via the “missing clue” plot thread. Not only does the killer choose to separate this clue, a crude map, from all of the other information that Jonathan receives, but he delivers in a way that almost ensures that it will be lost. When Jonathan, during one of a series of phonecalls between himself and his tormenter, tries to convince the killer that he has not received this clue, the response is an outburst of rage and more threats against the girl – “Now I’ll have to hurt her! Hurt her bad!” – that are made good with sickening promptness. The irreconcilable division in the killer’s psyche is painfully apparent. His desire for someone to stop him is at war with his need to torture and kill – and to have someone else to blame his deeds upon.

As long as Clear Water is focussed upon its killer and his victim, it is an intense and suspenseful experience. Unfortunately, the other half of the story, that dealing with Jonathan as he tries to come to grips with the horrifying situation in which he suddenly finds himself, does not work nearly as well. There are a couple of reasons for this. For one thing, it is evident that at this early stage of his career, Andy Koontz’s visual sense is much stronger than his feel for dialogue. Those sections of Clear Water dealing with the killer are largely dialogue-free, apart from the screams and pleadings of his victim (and I’ll have a bit more to say about Julie Wand’s performance later); and these, along with the bleak location footage and a brief but startling sequence depicting a nightmare suffered by Jonathan, are the most impressive parts of the film. Conversely, when Jonathan is called upon to interact with other people – telephone calls from the killer, an awkward dinner with, we infer, a potential girlfriend, a misjudged plea for help hindered by Jonathan’s terrified conviction that the killer is watching him (he’s right) – or even just to talk to himself, it all feels stilted and rather unconvincing. Actor Randy Bowden tries very hard during these scenes, but he just can’t put them over; although the underdeveloped nature of his character is probably as much to blame as any limitations of his own. (I exempt the scene of Jonathan undergoing a fit of terrified hysteria following the arrival of a second package from the killer, which is intense and uncontrolled enough to be fairly persuasive.) Ultimately, however, most of Clear Water’s imperfections can be chalked up to its brevity. We simply never have the chance to know or understand Jonathan as we should – particularly given the emphasis put upon his dual roles as subsidiary victim and potential hero in Clear Water’s promotional material. (How far would you go? How much would you sacrifice for someone you don’t know…?) Clear Water’s main flaw – if indeed you can call it a flaw; at any rate, it’s a refreshing one – is its over-ambition: it has way too many ideas for its limited running time. This is a project ripe for expansion into true feature-length. With sufficient development of Jonathan’s part of the plot, this could be a gripping suspense film – and particularly so in light of an unsettling implication made fairly late in the story as it now stands. One of the Clear Water’s small mis-steps sees Koontz falling back on the venerable trope of the Plot Point Specific Television©, with Jonathan turning on his TV at the exact moment that the details of his victim are being reported. (Although to be fair, I suppose that with a series of abductions happening in a small town, the odds of switching on the TV and getting coverage of the situation would be reasonably good.) It is now that we learn the name of the ill-fated girl whose sufferings we have witnessed – “Mellisa Jordan”. Jonathan immediately begins referring to the girl by her name, calling out to her repeatedly, promising her that he will save her; and this, coupled with the literal nightmare that he suffers soon afterwards, begins to suggest that Jonathan’s selection by the killer wasn’t quite as random as we have been led to believe….

Although made with a digital camcorder, Clear Water is an atmospheric work. The film was shot on location in Washington State between the months of November and February, and the external footage has an almost palpable chill about it. Moreover, Andy Koontz used various filtering techniques to “grimy-up” his images, and the result is an uncomfortable degree of realism, particularly in those scenes centred on the killer’s activities. One thing about this film that I found particularly striking was its depiction of its victim. How many times have you seen a woman in a studio film supposedly going through hell, yet emerging from her ordeal with her make-up intact and barely a hair out of place? In contrast, “Mellisa Jordan” is so believable in her sufferings that it makes you squirm. Much of this is to the credit of director (and effects man) Koontz, of course, but much also is due to the contribution of Julie Wand, who truly went above and beyond both in her performance, and in what she allowed Koontz to do to her appearance! Indeed, for much of the second half of the film we are uncertain whether Mellisa is alive or dead – which adds a whole other layer of tension to the story. Ultimately, however, Clear Water is as much of a one-man show as it is possible for a film to be. Let me put it this way: it would have been a lot simpler if, for his film credits, Andy Koontz had put up a single card stating what he did not do for this production. (Actually, although Koontz’s pride in his work is understandable, an unintentional and wholly out of place note of comedy is introduced by the endless stream of “---by Andy Koontz”-s that make up the opening credits: it’s all a bit too reminiscent of Bambi Meets Godzilla, if you know what I mean! It might have been better had these been included only at the end.) As regular readers would know, I recently undertook a critical viewing (although not reviewing) of Bram Stoker’s Dracula – a film which, in the course of his commentary, its director chooses to call “low-budget”. In fact, it cost $47,000,000 – and I didn’t get half as much enjoyment out of it as I got out of Clear Water, which was made for the princely sum of $400; further proof, if we needed it, of just how much talent and imagination – and sincerity – count for in this game. Reading back over this review, I find myself hoping that I haven’t oversold Clear Water. It’s no masterpiece, but it is an interesting, effective, encouragingly serious production; one that makes me eager to see what Andy Koontz will do next.

Footnote:  Copies of Clear Water may be purchased through Andy Koontz’s website, Horror On Film.

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