When you spend as much time discussing movies as DragonDark, it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid pre-conceived notions. When you boil what we do down to its base it revolves around reducing complex concepts into neat pigeonholes, taking square pegs and sanding down the edges until they fit into neat, round holes, which will always lead to a temptation to compartmentalise. This makes genuine genre-bending projects such a delight, so it’s fair to say that Sparks – a low budget-superhero-film noir-character study-serial killer thriller (good luck finding a shelf label for that one, Blockbuster Video) – has caught our imagination.
Sparks is a mish-mash of genres the likes of which have rarely been seen before, all while boasting a hugely distinctive digital look – but you can banish any Spirit-shaped bad memories from your mind. An entirely different animal to Frank Miller’s folly, and a considerably more thoughtful affair than Sin City, it’s fair to say that Sparks is one of the most astonishing pieces of work we’ve seen in a while. If this sounds like we’re gushing, you better believe it – aesthetically this is a thing of beauty, making a mockery of its DIY, Credit Card-sponsored production, while the rich and layered screenplay benefits from some astounding performances. We genuinely can’t recall the last time a film came from left-field that blew us away in such a fashion.
Before we get too excitable, lets start from the beginning – if we’re going to be wetting our metaphorical pants over Sparks, we probably ought to explain the what, the who and the when. The film began life as a graphic novel from acclaimed writer, director and all-around good egg Christoper Folino back in 2008, released by Catastrophic Comics – an imprint owned by Folino and The Greatest American Hero himself, actor William Katt. The book (and resulting motion comic, which became the first ever on iOS) is unfortunately unavailable in the UK, but it spins the yarn of Ian Sparks; an orphan who loses his parents at a young age and, as young men that face such predicaments are so often wont to do, vows to become a superhero. Unfortunately for our intrepid adventurer he finds life in the big city significantly tougher than the cornfields of his youth, leading to an unexpected absorption into a world of corruption, homicide and vice that will leave pulp fans giddy.
Never mind all that though; Sparks - brought to the screen by Folino and co-director Todd Burrows – is another ‘real life superhero’ story akin to Watchmen, Super, Defendor or Kick-Ass right? Wrong. This takes the darkness that proves so popular in such tales and dials the tone right down to noir, providing a living and breathing 1940s atmosphere; one that drips with mood that immaculately complements the perfectly-paced tale of secrets, lies and double-crosses that unfolds on-screen. Filmed in just 12 days on a budget that wouldn’t pay for a cast and crew Starbucks run on Marvel’s latest, Sparks is a story of love and redemption at its heart; the tale of a flawed man that makes bad decisions, and struggles to live with the consequences thereof.
Fortunately Folino is fully aware that 97 minutes of Ian Sparks contemplating his navel throughout this journey of self-discovery wouldn’t make for the most exciting viewing experience. Our costume-clad crusader finds himself framed for murder, battling vile villains, romancing the delectable Lady Heavenly, and learning that nothing is as it seems and nobody can be trusted in the Hitchcockian world that he inhabits. To say more would be to reveal some of the many twists and turns that Sparks’ journey takes, but rest assured; go in cold and you are assured one of the most entertaining unique takes on superhero lore in recent years.
Sparks also benefits from a considerably starrier cast than most projects of this size could reasonably expect, with William Katt’s connection to the project opening plenty of doors that ordinarily remain firmly closed in the face of low budget filmmakers. With bright young things Chase Williamson (hot from Don Coscarelli’s adap of David Wong’s John Dies at the End, finally available in the UK) and The Last Exorcism’s Ashley Bell on lead duties, flanked by established veterans such as Clancy Brown, Jake Busey, Clint Howard and Katt himself, it’s an all-star ensemble affair.
Williamson takes a difficult lead and makes it his own, portraying Ian Sparks’ descent from bright-eyed would-be superhero to washed-up cynic with the comfort and range of a thesp twice his age; wholly convincing as a man destroyed by love, Sparks never loses our sympathy, even when he’s a hard man to like. His female co-star, meanwhile, is a revelation; a literal Bell(e) of the superhero ball. Wearing the costume of Lady Heavenly with the comfort and confidence that only a real-life superhero nut could manage, Bell weds unapologetic ass-kickery to an effortless elegance out of spandex, bringing to mind the great and glamorous stars of the golden age of Hollywood. Best of all, the two leads enjoy a genuine, easy chemistry which frequently renders dialogue unnecessary – many of Sparks’ most emotional impactful moments revolve around telling looks between these two partners in crime-fighting.
The supporting cast acquit themselves equally well, clearly displaying genuine affection for the material. Personal injury forced Katt to spend less time in front of the camera than originally planned but his role as the iniquitous Matanza has a huge impact, while Marina Squerciati matches Bell in the smoky glamour stakes. Jake Busey and Clancy Brown are also their usual reliable and charismatic selves, with the former’s character enjoying a small role but casting a large shadow over proceedings by reputation. There’s no doubt that Sparks enjoys a sizable call sheet – another element of the film that belies it budgetary constraints – but rest assured, there is no room for passengers in a project such as this. Everyone plays their part, and everyone gets at least one memorable line or moment.
It could be argued that the visual style of Sparks is a character unto itself, with the digital visuals embodying the graphic novel roots of the film. Special effects are understandably used sparingly but the CGI never feels false or forced, and successfully adds elemental atmosphere by lashing the night shoots with rainfall (though thankfully Sparks never falls into the trap of pitching the viewer into eternal squinting gloom, utilising a rich and striking colour palette that ensures that every carefully-conceived shot counts). It’s these scenes that take place under the cover of darkness, frequently comprising of rooftop rendezvous’, back alley meeting spots and Spartan apartment sets, that add to the hard boiled Dick Tracy-meets-Double Indemnity 40s vibe.
Sparks also builds its own universe in time at all, offering a unique lexicon of slang that never feels out of place and gloriously retro costumes and make-up. There are no Spider-Man-style hitherto-untapped seamstress skills here; while the crime-fighting costumes are gorgeous to look at, these guys genuinely resemble DIY superheroes from a post-war era, utilising the limited materials that would have been available at the time such as domino masks and common fabrics. Huge credit is also due to Folino and Burrows, who handle the lensing of the action scenes with genuine aplomb. Resisting the urge to engage in constant jump-cuts that leave us disorientated, the fight scenes are handled with a steady hand that ensure every blow delivered by the immaculately-trained cast will have you wincing in sympathy for their recipient.
Sparks hits DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on Monday 7th April, and such is the movie’s charm and quality that we’re dedicating next week on DragonDark to the project – get ready for Sparks Week (stand down, Discovery Channel legal team). Check into the site from Monday onward for conversations with Chris Folino, William Katt, Ashley Bell and Clint Howard – but more importantly, pick up a copy of the movie too. Sparks is the kind of project that should restore faith in low-budget film-making for even the most cynical and embittered genre fan, and a labour of love that deserves all the support that a community can offer.