Multimedia Review: “Malice: The Webseries”

Malice - Alice on Toadstool

I have one word for you…webseries.  OK, don’t groan; hear me out.

Yes, I know that the rapid advancement in Internet streaming technologies and the advent of home video editing suites have created a perfect storm of sorts.  On one hand, just about everyone and their mothers have become  auteurs overnight, latter day Francis Ford Coppolas who just know how brilliant their work is; how people will understand their “vision” if they could only see the work.  Of course, most of these folks should have remained interested amateurs, content to consume rather than produce, as most of the product ends up being shit.  On the other hand, these technological advancements have been a boon to those who have practiced and honed their craft for decades, those with the ability and skill to craft television series, albeit television series in handy little seven to ten minute chunks.

Almost overnight, venues like Hulu, Vudu, Koldcast and Blip TV became ravenous for content.  At first, venues of this type were obsessed with massive amounts of content and, needless to say, the result was mixed.  Quality filmmakers suddenly had a viable distribution venue with massive potential, but so did the auteurs, and the Hunger Games of content, content, content won out—at first, anyway. The marketplace became flooded with unbelievable amounts of drek, and the quality content was quickly drowned in the shifting seas.  But almost as quickly, these venues started to realize that quality did matter and the ratio of crap to quality is shifting rapidly.  No longer does one have to kiss a hundred frogs to find a prince.  Maybe just 25, these days.  But that’s the beauty of bite-sized television.  You can usually tell in the first minute whether you gotten something good or something dreadful.  You can move on quickly or immerse yourself in the work of some truly talented writers, producer and directors.

Case in point:  Malice: The Webseries, a creepy and impressive series created, written, produced and edited by Philip J. Cook, a filmmaker based in the Washington D.C. area.  No neophyte, Cook has a long history in the entertainment industry.  In the 80s—when micro-budget filmmakers could still produce and get theatrical distribution—Cook was producing ambitious sci-fi films. When the 90s rolled around and cable became de rigueur, Cook bypassed theatrical distribution and went straight to the cable networks.  But then Hollywood swooped in, monopolizing the cable market; so in the aughts, Cook set his sites of the massive number of brick-and-mortar video stores, selling his films directly to that market. Hollywood, again, finally caught on and shortly thereafter saw the potential Cook and others like him had already recognized. Soon, studios were flooding video stores with direct-to-video productions, again squeezing out the independents.

In short, Cook has been on the leading edge of micro-budget filmmakers for decades. So, when Internet killed the Video Store, Cook set his sites on the emerging media of streaming distribution and created Malice, which has racked up an impressive number of good reviews, and rightly so.

Take one creepy house, two rebellious teenage girls, a possibly unstable ex-Navy Seal father and a recovering alcoholic mother and mix them together with ghosts and zombies and monsters and you have a highly entertaining series that has been called Juno meets The Shining.  And it’s a label that is particularly apt.

In a twisted play on Alice in Wonderland, Malice focuses on Alice (Brittany Martz), a disaffected–almost jaded–youth who isn’t exactly thrilled when her mother, Jesse (Leanna Chamish), inherits her childhood home. But Alice doesn’t have much say in the matter and, in the opening episode, Jesse, Alice, her sister Abbey (Rebekkah Johnson) and father Nate (Mark Hyde), find themselves facing a seriously creepy old house in rural Virginia.  Almost immediately upon arriving, strange things are afoot and it might just have something to do with the massive graveyard in the back yard.

Jesse chucks her one-year sobriety out the window almost immediately. Nate, who had recently finished his stint in Afghanistan, seems a little more lost, a bit more off-balance and, although never particularly close, Alice and Abbey begin fighting even more regularly than usual.  There are also strange happenings in the house as well.  Alice constantly feels as if she is being watched. Mysterious figures pass by the rooms.  Someone watches from the heating grates.

When one night, Jesse wanders off into the woods in only a nightie and Nate starts receiving bloody messages on the walls, Alice and Abbey slowly watch their family disintegrate and are thrust into a bizarre wonderland.  Does Alice simply have an overactive imagination?  Or are there secrets about her family she’s never even known?

Malice Cave

From the very first moment of the premiere episode, you know you’re in for something different with Malice.  Martz, as Alice, sits atop her family’s new home, a bunny hat on her head, an AK-47 in her hands.  “Being a teenager sucks.  There’s a shocking revelation, huh? But right now, that’s the least of my problems.” She ruminates on how it all came to this, how her not-so normal family seemed so normal in hindsight, what her life has become.  It’s a great hook, because for the entire first season, we’re working our way back to that moment, wondering what the hell led her to that rooftop. And it’s a ride worth taking.

Cook keeps the storytelling concise, an absolute necessity when dealing with webseries episodes, and wrought with tension, each episode ending with a truly compelling cliffhanger. The mood he sets is genuinely creepy, alternately dark and extremely stark, and the dynamic between cast members is highly affective.  In short, he set the tone expertly but gives us realistic and interesting character dynamics.  In fact, one of the most chilling moments early in the season is when the until-then sober Jesse brings in dinner the first night they are in the house and she has a glass of wine with her.  When she sets the glass on the table, that one moment resounds link a gunshot.

Now, don’t get me wrong…this isn’t some dreary family melodrama.  Script and character are, indeed, everything, but there are other big bonuses as well. Malice boasts some incredibly ambitious—and highly effective—special effects.  With a budget that couldn’t have been more than one day’s worth of craft services on a Hollywood series, Cook pulls off some spectacular moments that add to the creepiness.  I first watched Malice on my little laptop and was impressed with the SFX.  When I discovered I could transfer to my 50 inch TV, I re-watched them and they are just as impressive—if not more so—at HD size.  Cook is wise, however.  Never does he allow the effects to overtake the story.  They are there to serve it and they serve it well.

As with any regional production, there are some hits and misses with the actors, some being far more accomplished than others, but luckily, Cook has cast his series leads extremely well.  Martz is greatly appealing as Alice as is Johnson who grows into her role as the series continues.  Los Angeles-based actor Mark Hyde as Nate, the patriarch, brings a wonderful sense of stability while, at the same time, being just off-kilter enough to make us wonder what he is capable of.  And Chamish, as Jesse, has some wonderfully chilling moments.

The first season of Malice has 6 episodes, varying in length from 3-10 minutes and ends with an appropriately creepy cliffhanger.  Season two (also 6 episodes) starts off with a massive bang — an impressive episode that rivals many Hollywood mainstream series — and ends with what was thought to be the series finale, again huge in scope and execution.  In between the two seasons, Cook and company produced a special episode as an homage to the cult-classic series Space: 1999 which is worth a look if, for nothing more, the genuinely stunning special effects.

Last year, Cook mapped out a new season for Malice, entitled Malice: Metamorphosis, and then turned to crowd funding to see if he could make it a reality.  It’s clear that the entire Malice series has been a labor of love (Cook, his family and friends all kick in to make the series effective) and that is even more evident in his crowd funding effort:  he was looking to raise a meager $13,000, with most of that budget going to food for the cast and crew, set materials, prop materials and the like.  How refreshing to see a realistic (and humble) crowd funding appeal. Luckily, the effort was successful.*

Webseries have very much been the first frontier with respect to short-run series, offering an unprecedented opportunity for micro-budget independent production companies like Cook’s Eagle Films.  But that is quickly changing and, as the mainstream takes notice, the market is shifting again. Already, South Korean film and television studios have started producing webseries such as the popular Infinite Power, and Hollywood is surely not going to be far behind.  Jump in now and discover the amazing creativity out there before it gets diluted with the same-old, same-old.

If you looking for a creepy, disturbing series with some serious ambition and highly professional storytelling, I highly recommend Malice: The Webseries.  All of Season 1 & 2 are available on various content services and Malice: Metamorphosis will premiere on Blip TV on February 19, 2014.  It is highly worth your time.

Malice Metamorphosis

* Though I seldom participate in crowd funding efforts, in the interest of full disclosure, I must state that I did contribute to the funding of Malice: Metamorphosis because I strongly believe in the quality of what Cook has produced.  I am not, however, in any way involved in the series and have no financial or creative interest in the series.

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