Andy Koontz's Clear Water

According to director Andy Koontz, his film Clear Water was made for about $400 (I assume this excludes the cost of the camera and the video editing equipment, since Koontz has been making short films for several years already). One of the reasons he was able to bring in the hour-long feature so economically is that he also wrote, shot and edited the movie, composed the score and played the film's murderous psychopath...

"... a real tour de force (which is kinda French for 'blowing your own horn')."
-- Kermit the Frog

But Clear Water is not one of those shoestring productions that wears its budget on its sleeve with misplaced pride: Koontz has made a movie for a sum that wouldn't even appear as a line-item on the budget sheet of a Sundance-style "independent" film, and it looks like a movie made for easily 10 times its actual cost.

(Okay. I just did the math and realized that would make it a $4,000 film. Talk about "damning with faint praise"! But I suppose you get the idea...)

The film begins with a man abducting a girl off a suburban street. He pulls her through the window of his car and brutalizes her; then he quickly throws her in his trunk and speeds away. He ties her up in a shed and begins to torture her, stopping occasionally to take Polaroids. He then sends the pictures and a letter to an architect, a man he's apparently chosen at random. The letter basically outlines the rules of a particularly nasty game: the architect does not know either the killer or his intended victim, but unless he follows the clues the killer has provided, the one perfect stranger will kill the other perfect stranger in one week. If the architect tries to call the police, or tell anyone about what's going on, then both the architect and the girl will have to pay a heavy price.

Apparently the killer has played this game before. He acquired the nickname "The Clear Water Killer", because he's been doing his dirty work in the town of Clear Water, Washington1. Nobody yet has succeeded in finding him and stopping him before the deadlines. The impression we're given is that no one so far has been willing to extend themselves to save someone they don't know.

The architect's first instinct is to call the police. He dials 911, but hangs up before the receptionist has finished her greeting2. Unfortunately, the killer has a way of knowing exactly what the architect is up to, and he's very upset that he's not following the intructions. The architect, on the verge of panic, agrees to do as he's been told.

Unbeknownst to him, the killer has provided him with a crucial piece of information which he's overlooked. The killer, for his part, doesn't realize that the architect has lost the clue3, so he becomes exasperated when he thinks he's being ignored. With every mis-step the architect makes, the killer chooses what he thinks is a suitable punishment, ranging from subtracting days from the deadline to a nasty incident involving a pair of pliers...

The film is shot widescreen with a digital camcorder. Koontz makes up for digital video's notorious lack of atmosphere by applying "old film" filters to the footage in editing. This produces a high-contrast black and white image with fake scratches simulating film damage. The filters also give the effect of an old projector with a flickering bulb. Sometimes it seems a little incongruous to see such undeniably modern footage -- widescreen, no less -- made to look like an old home movie; but in general, the effect works. It gives a grimy, oppressive feel to the film, which is very appropriate. The only time the filter runs into trouble is when it's used in conjunction with flickering candlelight in the killer's shed: the two flickers combine and produce a sort of throbbing effect, which at first made me think my picture tube was failing.

The film really comes to life during the scenes in which the psychopath is terrorizing his victim. Koontz seems to have a disturbingly good idea of how such a twisted individual might behave (in fact, he does such a good job with his mad killer that there's no way in hell I would give his movie a bad review. Not, heh, that I would want to or anything! Please put down those pliers...!).

It's easy to say in your screenplay that the serial kidnapper/killer really wants to be caught; but it's a much more difficult task to convince us, through the killer's behavior, that this is true. Koontz succeeds admirably. His maniac starts the kidnapped girl's ordeal by injuring himself, cutting open his hands and letting the blood flow over his victim's face. His subsequent attacks, difficult as they are to watch, have a feeling of desperation about them; they're ritualistic and compulsive, but at no point did I get the feeling that the killer is enjoying himself as he inflicts these horrors on the poor girl. The scenes are shot in a flat, unglamorous, thoroughly ugly style that makes them realistic and shocking. Several times I was sure the girl was already dead... in fact, in spite (or maybe because of) the low budget gore effects and heavily filtered photography, I was beginning to fear for the health of the actual actress involved: rarely have I seen a horror movie victim look so convincingly like a corpse, even when she was supposed to be still alive! (You might not think that a girl who is supposed to be semi-conscious and tied to a chair most of the time would have much chance to display her acting skills, but Julie Wand's performance as the victim is frightening and believeable.)

We never find out much about the killer's background and motivations. We don't really need to know: neither the girl nor the architect has any idea why they were singled out, and there's no compelling reason why we in the audience should know any more than they do (this is especially true since, according to Koontz's background materials, the killings which inspired the film were never solved). Perhaps a few years ago, the maniac's ability to monitor the architect's every move would have seemed implausible; but today, with so much technology available so inexpensively, we don't need to know the specifics... we just know in our hearts that it can be done. This leaves us free to concentrate on the real heart of the film, the game being played between the killer and the architect.

Unfortunately, this -- the most important aspect of the story -- is where the film succeeds least. The killer wants to make an innocent bystander, the architect, an accomplice in his crime, as well as making him a different type of victim; at the same time he honestly wants to be found and stopped. There's a lot of potential in this idea, but a 55-minute, ultra-ultra-low budget movie can't be expected to do more than scratch the surface.

Early on, the film contrasts shots of the architect working in his studio with scenes of the killer working in his, the one drawing up plans for orderly construction, and the other doing just the opposite; but we never see enough of the architect in his regular life to be able to make much of him, or understand why he makes the choices he makes when put into this terrible situation. Most of the time, after the ordeal begins, we see him dithering at home: pacing, clutching his head, making desultory conversation with visiting friends, even rolling on the floor in torment... but very rarely doing anything constructive to solve the puzzle he's been given.

(Only once, though, does the film really disappoint, and that's in the nature of the missing clue. We're used to the One Key Thing the Hero Saw but Didn't Understand, especially in the classic gialli of Dario Argento, but in Clear Water the "clue" is a real groaner.)

There is one spectacular moment which deserves mention: at a certain point in the film, when we're sure the poor girl is dead (or is she?), we're catapulted from the killer's shed into a dream the guilt-ridden architect is having. The sequence lasts only seconds, and is very simply shot and edited, but it will make you sit up and take notice.

The frustrating thing about Clear Water is that there just doesn't seem to be any time to explore the ambiguity of the architect's place in the killer's scheme. His role as potential savior is actually the least interesting... there are bigger issues at stake here: how far do you dare to go in cooperating with a killer's game? Do you dare to trust him, even if there's a chance that you may be able to save the victim by doing everything you're told? Should you even believe him? Should you try to thwart him at all costs, even if it means the victim may die? At what point to you stop being another victim, and become a voyeur or an actual accomplice? There are dozens of moral questions raised by the whole scenario, and most of them are likely to occur to the viewer after the movie's over... because they simply aren't to be found in the movie itself. It's not that they really need to be: in a way, it's enough that these brief images should even suggest such troubling ideas.

The ideal situation, I think, is for Koontz to eventually expand Clear Water into a full-length, larger budget work... one that gives us a deeper perspective into the architect's unravelling. This is, of course, just my opinion; but whatever he should turn his attention to, I believe anyone who is interested in the future of horror film-making should give Andy Koontz their support. Hey, everybody? Take the money you would have spent on tickets and popcorn for the needless Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, and use it to order a copy of Clear Water instead. Our money belongs in the hands of someone with a genuine commitment to the genre.

Though his earlier efforts (which I have not seen) are apparently tongue-in-cheek zombie splatter shorts, Koontz displays a seriousness of intent in Clear Water that makes his movie much more than an interesting example of guerilla film-making. Koontz shouldn't have any trouble making his money back, but I sincerely hope his film does much better. Koontz shows a great deal of promise in each of the roles he took on in making the film; still, I'd like to see what he could do with a larger budget, and perhaps more creative input from outside to help him find a more disciplined approach to his material.

More Information:
Andy Koontz's web site
(I noticed something very disturbing
buried in the "documentary" information
Koontz provides on his web site...
You'll only notice it after you've seen the film.
As a hint, it's another reason why I wish
we knew more about the architect...)

1. I don't recall the explanation of the name being given in the film, though it is provided on the web site; I thought it had something to do with Florida (perhaps he Tampa-ed in God's domain... badump-bum! Ouch; sorry.)

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2. Actually, this might be a minor error: I understand that as soon as soneone dials the digits "9-1...", the call is immediately logged. The architect would no sooner have hung up when he probably would have been called back by the police. My further understanding is that they do not take false alarms lightly...

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3. Yes, this is a sort of contradiction, considering the killer's uncanny ability to see everything else the architect does. I don't want to explain too much, but it does seem to work in the context of the film; also, it helps stress the ambiguity of whether the killer really wants to be found.

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