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Two local feature films and a Maine film fest get wicked scary

The horror! the horror!
By MATT BROWN  |  October 10, 2012

MULTIPLE AWARD WINNER 40 West, shot in Buxton and Hollis, has collected honors at film festivals around the world, and sees its DVD release this week. Directed by Dana Packard and written by Jennifer Nichole Porter, it stars local actors.

With just five main characters and an East Texas motel room as its primary setting, thriller film 40 West is as stripped-down and immediate as theater. The most important events are off-screen, and in the past. Rather than watching them in real time, we study their lasting effects on characters who can neither cope with nor outrun their histories. As these tangled webs are slowly revealed, we wonder what, if anything, can set our characters free. And we recall Sartre's famous wisdom from No Exit: "Hell is other people."

Jennifer Nichole Porter wrote the script and the music for 40 West, as well as playing the lead in the film, which is directed and edited by Dana Packard. Despite its Texas setting, it was shot in Buxton and Hollis in the spring of 2010. Since its New York premiere in 2011, 40 West has gone on to win 17 international awards, including Best Director at the NYC Downtown Feature Film Festival and the Grand Jury Prize at the Amsterdam Film Festival.

Now coming out on DVD (and most recently screened to sold-out audiences at the Nickelodeon last month), 40 West's October 16 release date kicks off what might be the busiest week of Maine film in history. Two days later, Gorham native Andrew Bard's Neo Phoenix Studios and director Janet Llavina bring psychological thriller Hypnagogic to the Nick. And the night after that, the third installment of Maine short-horror-film festival Damnationland screens at the State Theatre. If you're a film-head, or like having your blood curdled, definitely don't stay home this week.

But back to Texas — an inspiration for many great films. There's the expansiveness of Giant, in which stockyards and oil fields are frontiers, places where fortunes are made and squandered; the dusty, elegiac Americana of The Last Picture Show; the existential no man's land of Paris, Texas; and Texas by way of Cormac McCarthy, a wilderness of bloody conflict and Old Testament reckoning. Porter and Packard's 40 West is closest to the latter in spirit.

Yet there are curiously few external shots in the film and almost nothing suggestive of the Lone Star State except a map, twangy voices, and paintings of horses on the walls. Instead, 40 West's Texas feels symbolic. It's a lawless land, endless and impersonal, where each woman must fend for herself. It's a moral vacuum in which any sin can be committed without — as we're told in one of the film's rare ham-fisted moments — the intercession of God or fate.

Sound pretty grim? It is. But one of the film's merits is that it summons such darkness without resorting to gimmicks. There is little to distract from the actors' performances. The direction is unfussy. The music is understated. The film doesn't jump around in time or space, except in the beginning and end. Instead, we're asked to stay with the characters — close enough to smell the tequila, it seems, and count the heroine's every quiver — as they torture one another and wrestle with inner turmoil. Thankfully, the acting is good enough on the whole to bear this out.

Porter plays Maeve, who's has been rendered nearly catatonic by her past. She finds herself locked in a room with not one but two men who have abused her. She whimpers far more than she speaks. Scott Winters brings complexity to the role of Elijah. He's a dope, yes, but also a weak man capable of great evil and a sensitive soul in search of redemption. Brian A. White brings healthy doses of animalism to the part of Colin, a seething ball of rage and jealousy who can talk about renewing his marriage vows with Maeve and then, seconds later, threaten to choke her with a shovel. In terms of emotional maturity and respect for women, he's the equal of Phil Spector or — more in keeping with Colin's redneck demeanor — Leo Johnson in Twin Peaks.

40 West has its shortcomings. The intersections in its characters' lives are too neat to be believed. The film also comes up short on philosophy; its ruminations on God, fate, and luck are unconvincing. Still, 40 West is tense, thoughtful, passionate, and well worth a viewing, both on its own and as a prologue for future work from Porter and Packard.

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