S&Man (2006)

AUGUST 31, 2011


I’ve been putting off S&Man (pronounced "Sandman", not "S&M Man") for a while now, because I knew it featured clips from movies directed by Bill Zebub and the Toe Tag guys, i.e. underground “extreme” nonsense that I'd sooner quit HMAD than ever sit through one in its entirety (a Toe Tag production remains the only film I ever shut off in the 4.5 year history of HMAD). Not only was I not too keen about looking at it, I knew it would feature the sort of thing that would upset my wife, so I had to watch when I had time to not only watch the movie but its two commentaries and other bonus material. So when she said she was going out to dinner tonight I figured I’d have enough time to watch the movie, and then tomorrow I work late so I’d have time to go through the extras in the AM after she had gone to work.

Given my distaste for those things, a lot of the movie left me sort of cold, as it was essentially a documentary about how far horror has come over the years; after a brief overview of the slasher film from Carol Clover (author of “Men, Woman, and Chainsaws”) we are introduced to Zebub and the others, as well as Eric Rost, a guy who makes the titular “Sandman” videos, a series of shorts in which he follows a girl for a while, uses voodoo to erase her existence, and then kills her. The first half of the film is largely a straight, traditional documentary, focusing on the makers of these underground horror films and how they are made as well as their role in the horror genre as a whole. But after a while it switches gears a bit, as director JT Petty (The Burrowers, Soft For Digging) takes a more involved role in the movie as he grows concerned that Eric might actually be a real killer.

Spoilers ahead!!!

Of course, Eric is an actor, and thus the movie sacrifices some of its documentary cred in favor of an intriguing “mockumentary”/found footage type deal, where scripted (or at least, plotted) events occur as they would in a documentary. The closest thing I’ve ever seen to something like it would be the excellent comi-drama doc The Hole Story, and I think it’s far more successful than the usual Blair Witch-inspired "Is this real or fake?" flick (as I write this, NASA has just issued a statement in which they want to make it abundantly clear that Dimension’s Apollo 18 is NOT a true story – gee, thanks guys).

I wish I was fooled longer; I don’t know if they wanted to make it fairly obvious that it was staged or not, but even before the ridiculous voodoo angle is introduced I was having doubts. For starters, we see Eric steal one of his victims’ keys after she leaves them and the rest of her purse on the table when she goes to order a coffee at a crowded diner. Come on, what sort of person is that stupid? Also, just the general idea plus time give it away; the movie was shot in 2005 – I think I would have heard about this guy by now if he was an actual killer (the movie was unfortunately shelved for a few years due to internal issues at the production company). The fact that Eric was the only one of the subjects I wasn’t familiar with also tipped me off, though that's minor - I’m guessing someone like my mom would probably just assume they were ALL fake before she’d single one out as being “off”. Nope, sorry mom – Bill Zebub is an actual guy making actual godawful shit.

On the other hand, I was impressed by how much work Petty (and the actor playing Eric) put into “seeding” this guy into reality, having him give out a complete episode of "S&Man" at a Chiller convention (one I’m pretty sure I attended! If I didn’t ignore everyone handing their junk out at these things, I might have gotten one!), even apparently getting Michael Rooker to plug the S&Man website (we see a lot of clips from Henry but not that footage, dammit). Also, as I just mentioned, they actually went ahead and created an entire 30 minute episode of "S&Man", which is on the Blu-ray and damned impressive. Not the actual piece, which is largely boring (and the feature shows all the highlights anyway), but the fact that they actually did this much legwork to put the idea of this guy into reality before even starting the documentary proper. It’d be like if they actually had Josh, Heather, and Mike make some sort of student film two years before Blair Witch came out.

But while this stuff is a lot of fun (I particularly enjoyed how Petty sort of played himself as an asshole), most of the movie is given to Zebub or Toe Tag maestro Fred Vogel rambling on and on while discussing their unwatchable dreck. And throughout the movie I couldn’t decide who I disliked more; Zebub admits his movies are shit and he makes them because people buy them to jerk off to (gah!), so does this make him better or worse than Vogel, who doesn’t seem to have that sort of honesty about what he does (which is the same sort of garbage). If you’re unfamiliar with their “films”, you’re lucky, but the movie gives you enough of an idea to know whether or not it’s your thing. Zebub has a penchant for girls being tied to crosses and raped (sometimes by Jesus himself), and Vogel’s films involve girls puking on each other, followed by sex and/or killing. We’re also exposed to Debbie D, a “scream queen” who stars in fetish films that are actually ordered by people. Like, one guy apparently gets off on navel violence, and thus she makes a movie specifically for him (but available to any customer) in which her belly button is shot or zapped with lasers or whatever. And you guys say The Hitcher remake is a waste of time? Then again, one man's trash...

But it’s kind of a shame, because there are a lot of good points being made (Vogel in particular actually has some valid things to say), especially from Clover as well as a pair of psychiatrists whose names escape me (one is Krieger). Hell even Eric has some thoughtful insight, but it’s mixed with this other junk. Don’t get me wrong – I understand the need to give context and a bit of background on these guys, and obviously they have their fans who will no doubt love the fact that there’s a documentary that delivers the same sort of perverse visuals that the movies themselves offer – but since I personally can’t stand this “underground” stuff it made the movie difficult to endure at times, especially since they couldn’t have too much stuff with Eric (which was far more interesting to me), lest the audience catch on too quickly.

Luckily the commentary tracks muted the dialogue of the participants in favor of a chat between Petty and Eric. Interestingly, one track has them talking normally about making the film, how they pulled off the “snuff” scenes, how the project came about, etc – it’s a terrific listen for anyone interested in this sort of stuff, and even includes a few acknowledgments of things that annoyed me. For example, when Clover talks about the slasher film, she skips over Black Christmas, something Petty regrets (whether she never mentioned it at all or it was edited, I am unsure). One of the few notes I took was “Black Christmas?”, so again – this is why listening to commentaries is important. I could have been going on and on about how they didn’t know what they were talking about since they skipped over such an important chapter in slasher history, and it would have been unnecessary.

The other track, however, finds the two men “in character”, and it starts off with Petty explaining that Eric sued him over his suggestion that he was actually killing people (they settled out of court). Then throughout the track they are impressively dismissive of one another; for 80 minutes they always sound like they’re about one remark away from coming to blows (or worse). It’s the sort of thing that a filmmaker would do in order to further try to convince an audience of his (fake) film’s legitimacy, but the fact that it’s paired with one that very much proves that it’s staged just makes it a wonderfully amusing “alternate” commentary. It gets a bit repetitive at times (Eric is convinced Petty has staged EVERYTHING in the movie, including the insight from the experts), but still, considering I had just watched the movie twice and was still being entertained with this third go-around should be enough to prove that it’s worth a listen.

The rest of the stuff you can skip. The deleted scenes are forgettable (and hard to hear), and the trailer doesn’t even really seem to be trying to hide that it’s not 100% real, as it’s cut like a typical thriller. The trailers for the "S&Man" episodes are all the same (random footage, title card with the name of the victim, random footage, title card with the color of her hair, random footage, title card of how she died, quick shot of her death – end), and again, the full episode that is included isn’t really worth watching once you’ve seen the feature film – it’s a clever promotional tool, sure, but hardly something you’ll want to watch on its own especially once you know it’s all fake.

In terms of concept and even execution to a degree, the movie is nearly a home run. I wasn’t fooled for long, but I liked how much effort they put into setting it up in the real world, and the Eric scenes are just as suspenseful/exciting as any other “found footage” movie, if not more so since there’s no supernatural element to bog it down, like usual. And fake or not, the ending is impressively grim. But that’s only half of the movie, and the other half is spent on guys defending/discussing their worthless trash films. Maybe if a Zebub type was featured as part of a more diverse group (i.e. guys making normal horror movies, or maybe even a legit veteran filmmaker), maybe it would have been a bit more successful; a few familiar talking heads could have even helped sell the “is this real?” concept better. At any rate, it further proves that Petty is one of our more interesting new genre filmmakers, and I hope he continues to defy expectations and make movies that aren’t easy to pigeonhole. All of his films have been remarkably different from one another, something that is to be lauded. Nothing against Ti West, but all four of his features can be described the same way: "80 minutes of nothing happening and then a rushed climax". At least with Petty you don't know what you're going to get, though there's a damn good chance it'll be good.

What say you?


Children Of The Corn: Genesis (2011)

AUGUST 30, 2011


If you recall my review of Hellraiser: Revelations, I could have seen it as the second half of a double feature with Children of the Corn: Genesis, but my car knew that at this point in HMAD I shouldn’t be doubling up, and thus it refused to start and I missed the screening (good ol' Ryan Rotten picked me up for Hellraiser). But it had no problems getting me to Blockbuster today in order to rent the flick on street date, so thanks, car!

Anyway, it’s not too bad, as these things go. Like that horrid Hellraiser thing, it was shot quick/cheap by Dimension in a rush so that they could retain the rights to the series before their contract ran out, so don’t expect much in terms of production value or even a cast; there’s only like 10 people in the entire movie (five of whom are adults). But unlike Hellraiser, it actually uses its limitations in a creative way, focusing on the characters (and a story lifted from Twilight Zone) and delivering a decent thriller that may not satisfy fans of killer kid movies but at least doesn’t totally disgrace the franchise name like its “cousin”.

In fact it’s so unlike the others that if not for numerous references to Gatlin and “He Who Walks Behind The Rows”, I would suspect it was just some generic evil kid movie that was retitled for DVD. A kid is the villain, of course, but he has telekinesis and doesn’t even talk, a far cry from the usual babbling tykes like Isaac. We see a few of the other kids but they don’t do a lot; hell there’s barely even any sickle action. However, the film almost seems like a remake at first, as it concerns a young couple (Kelen Coleman and Tim Rock, both refreshingly easy to identify with and personable) seeking help in a strange town (well, basically just a house here) after some car trouble. At first I laughed at the obligatory “Based on a story by Stephen King” credit, but in actuality it’s the closest any of the sequels have been to his original story.

But instead of them wandering around and running from kids, its an almost real time account of them waiting around for the tow truck. The house is owned by Billy Drago, so you know that they’re in trouble, and thus it just becomes a question of WHEN they will be taken out by him and/or the kids. Since they probably didn’t have the dough to have a lot of kills (or kids, who can only work at certain times of the day), writer/director Joel Soisson opts for something a little closer to psychological thriller, with Drago telling each side of the couple something about the other (one a lie, the other we’re never given a straight answer) and playing them against each other, which causes tension and allows to pad the running time with cheap but effective personal drama.

Also, the “Why don’t they just leave?” question has a pretty great answer – the kid is using his power to keep them there. But it’s not some stupid “they drive for 20 minutes and somehow end up in the same place” scenario, instead he just sort of beats the shit out of the guy as he tries to leave. Objects knock him over, makeshift battering rams are forcibly removed from his hands, etc. Soisson really hammers the idea home too; the guy is almost laughably stubborn in his repeated attempts to get away despite the obvious fact that someone/something is working overtime to stop him from doing so. Plus Drago actually has a real role to play, unlike the names that have popped up in previous entries for 5 minutes tops, and he’s always fun to watch.

The ending sucks though. Without spoiling much, there’s a big out of nowhere action sequence (using stock footage from Bad Boys II, of all things), followed by a final scene that’s a confusing mix of tragedy and spirituality. Maybe it made more sense on paper and things had to be cut for budget/time, or Soisson has just spent too much time with Wes Craven (master of potentially interesting ideas that don’t necessarily translate to screen), but either way it doesn’t work and kills some of the movie’s already minor goodwill. Basically, it’s the sort of OK movie that can be elevated to “Good” with a knockout ending, but instead it just sort of trails off (though there’s a pretty hilarious epilogue after the first few credits).

Also, longtime fans (why?) might balk at the change to the mythology established in the previous movies. In addition to changing the timeline (Gatlin is seen being overrun in the early 70s, whereas the original took place in the present day which would make this event in the early 80s instead), we’re also told that He Who Walks is a sort of virus and needs a host, or something (word of advice to filmmakers – never leave it to Billy Drago to explain your plot). At any rate, he’s not a giant monster that lives under the ground, like he was in the other movies. I actually think this sounds more interesting, and a kid with telekinesis is scarier than a kid with a sickle, but with a series as long-running and fractured as this (some folks assumed this was a followup to the remake – but that one wasn’t Dimension, so this is part of the original series), it’s a bit odd to be completely changing the nature of the only thing that ties them together.

The disc’s only extra is an interview with Soisson, in which he explains that the movie only had two weeks to shoot and also talks about the stock footage (doesn’t name the movie though), explaining that he wrote the scene around the footage that he found in order to add some production value/action to a movie that couldn’t afford any. Very Ed Wood of him! But I kid Soisson; I’ve actually come to like the guy after listening to him on a bunch of these DTV movies, and he clearly has a good sense of humor about what he does for a living. I don’t know if he could ever make it as a big screen director, but I defy anyone to stack his film up against the Hellraiser one and claim that HE’S the lazy hack. Hell he even shot the movie 2.35:1 (or at least cropped it down in post production), giving the movie just that much extra bit of professionalism, whereas in Hellraiser 9 I’m almost surprised that they remembered to turn the camera on.

In short: Best Children of the Corn sequel in years!

What say you?


100 Tears (2007)

AUGUST 29, 2011


While I try to avoid seeing an HMAD entry in any sort of “party” setting, every now and then I like to bring my good friend Matt (aka Masked Slasher from Dread Central) along for the ride, utilizing Xbox/Netflix’s fun “party view” to watch the movie together even though we live on opposite sides of the country. And 100 Tears made the perfect movie to watch this way, as it contained enough kills to keep us entertained and a non complicated plot that allowed for occasional chatter without getting lost. Not a good movie by a conventional measure, but a great one in the “this is delicious trash” sense, offering up the sort of batshit, go for broke fun I usually have to watch Italian movies from the early 80s to find (yesterday’s Italian zombie movie being such a dull bore may have been a factor).

The great thing about the movie is that it wastes no time in killing off a whole bunch of people, with our killer clown offing the entire population of a halfway house in the first ten minutes. And this isn’t some off-screen massacre – we see every one of the kills in their splatter-y glory, with numerous beheadings and eviscerations to applaud. It’s a perfect way to start off this sort of movie, but what makes it admirable is that it hasn’t blown its wad – there are still about twice as many on-screen kills to go!

And for a while it feels like they might not have really thought things through, as we get a few out of nowhere kills with no setup whatsoever, plus a brief detour into torture land, but luckily it gets back on track once we get the back-story of Gurdy and meet his (spoiler) daughter, a troubled girl who is all too eager to help her father with his murderous exploits. It’s actually sort of ridiculous how quickly she turns into an ace slasher, but it’s also part of the fun and thus forgivable. The regained focus also means fewer anonymous victims, but the pace keeps up – basically, pretty much everyone dies regardless of whether or not they should be “safe” given their character type.

Plus the FX (by director Marcus Koch) are pretty good and seemingly all practical, something that’s sadly rare in any horror film let alone an independent one. Maybe nothing as impressive as the Hatchets or Laid To Rest in terms of creativity (everyone is dismembered or disemboweled via Gurdy’s comically oversized meat cleaver), but again, there’s not a lot of chicken shit off-screen stuff. Every five minutes or so we’re seeing another arm get chopped off or another pile of guts spilling onto the floor (plus what has to be a record for most blood sprayed onto walls and such), giving the film an almost Troma or HGL feel at times but always keeping firmly with slasher tradition.

Not that the film is without (intentional) humor, as our heroes, Mark and Jen, are a pair of laid-back tabloid journalists with foul mouths. Neither of them are particularly great actors (lot of fumbled lines), and it certainly didn’t surprise me to discover that the guy playing Mark was also the screenwriter since he got all the best lines, but they’re certainly unconventional as heroes which gives the movie some added charm. At one point Jennifer maps out a plan to investigate the circus, and then concludes her scene with “In the meantime, I’m going to go take a dump.” You don’t hear Sidney Prescott offering up that sort of bon mot. I was also delighted by the fact that Mark was seemingly more competent than the police officers who were (sort of) investigating the murders. In a movie like this it’s hard to tell if off kilter acting and even story-telling decisions are intentional or the result of amateur actors and/or under-funded productions, but either way it adds to the movie’s gonzo charms.

It also has some Youtube worthy highlights that kept Matt and I roaring throughout. At one point a security guard finds a body and he just goes “aw, fuck”, as if he just discovered that his favorite team broke their win streak the night before or something. Plus, the opening massacre delivers one of the best things I’ve ever seen in a slasher: the clown approaches a guy who has his own weapon, and as they swing at each other the weapons connect and fall to the floor. But rather than pick them up, they just start whaling on each other, tossing punches like they were in a ring. It’s great because it comes out of nowhere, it’s not something like Hatchet II where they make a big moment out of Crowley taking on Trent in hand to hand combat as part of the finale. Again, at this point I wasn’t expecting more than 1-2 kills anyway, so to have this sort of treat so early on was just pure bliss. And Mark also demonstrates a lot of what I dubbed “Fat Man’s Parkour”, as he sort of clumsily jumped around and bounced off wooden palettes and such during the climax. Also, while I don’t get the fascination with little people being used as the butt of jokes, even I had to chuckle at the scene where Mark unsuccessfully chases a dwarf around for what seems like five full minutes, somehow unable to catch up to him.

The only thing that annoyed me (besides the poor sound mix, not sure if that was Netflix or the movie) was the editing. As I mentioned, some of the kills came out of nowhere, but even the story scenes lacked any sort of connective tissue. For example, at one point the two reporters make a big deal about coming home from the carnival area (which seems to be far off) and going to bed, and then in the next scene they’re back at the carnival again. It was also frequently impossible to get any sense of geography between the characters, particularly in the climax where they were seemingly all being chased separately by Gurdy at the same time. At this point of the film it’s more about the chasing instead of killing, so the fact that the chase was sort of hard to follow in a logical sense was a bit of a bummer. Luckily, the film’s final moments get things back on track, leaving me cheering (a Voltaire track over the credits didn’t hurt).

Speaking of the credits – you guys should call me next time (a sequel is promised at the end in possibly the best manner I’ve seen since Raw Force 2 was threatened at the end of the original), as I caught a lot of typos and weird formatting issues. If the sequel is even half as enjoyably nutty as this one, I’ll gladly do them for free.

What say you?


Black Demons (1991)

AUGUST 28, 2011


The last thing you can usually accuse an Italian zombie movie of is being boring. Add insane director Umberto Lenzi to the mix, and Black Demons (one of the many films sometimes known as Demons 3) should have been a pretty great time, intentionally or not. But no, it’s a major snoozer, as they opt for a Fog style “They need x amount of victims to finish their curse” plot that limits the action, which makes it feel more like one of the Blind Dead films, but without the atmosphere or cool ass knight costumes.

Right off the bat I knew it would be trouble (actually even earlier, my friend Matt all but told me not to watch it and he has a stronger affinity for this area of horror than I do), as we meet a guy who is obsessed with voodoo and blacks out while watching a bunch of voodoo types do their thing (drum circles, chanting, fire-dances, etc). Not that I don’t like voodoo based zombies (I prefer the Romero style, however), but in order for one of those to work well you need a strong director with a keen eye for atmosphere, and Lenzi does not fit that description. Indeed, he can’t even get basic action sequences right – when the heroes’ car needs to break down he just has one of them randomly swerve into a ditch, without placing as much as a squirrel in the road to provide the cause for the erratic action. So yeah, good luck with the slow-moving zombies who have a purpose.

And that purpose is claiming the lives of six white people in order to satisfy their revenge for how they died in the first place (the title isn’t just casually racist, their race actually plays a role in the plot). Again, this is the type of plot where a strong sense of atmosphere is required, or at least a very big selection for the zombies to choose from. But this is the most under-populated zombie movie in history, offering us only six real characters and almost no supporting cast at all. And there are only a few zombies, so there’s no swarm or big attack scenes, nor do they turn anyone when they kill them in order to change the balance. Worse, they all use weapons! It’s fine if one random zombie kills one guy in the middle of a zombie movie with a weapon, to give it a little dose of humor, but they all brandish garden hoes and axes throughout the film (no biting!). They even kill most of their victims the same way, gouging an eye out with one of the garden tools. Come on guys, if nothing else at least come up with some cool deaths.

It also commits the cardinal sin of zombie movies – stretching out the time period. I could almost forgive the boring first half if they kept up the pace from the moment that the zombies first began rising from their graves (which occurs at the halfway mark of the movie), but no! The zombies rise, kill one or two, and then it’s morning and we have to be bored again for a while before they start doing anything again. Almost the entire movie is set inside the one house (a big, crumbling estate – actually a plantation and thus not a bad place to set a horror movie in theory), which just brings Night of the Living Dead to mind anyway – it’s totally unacceptable to manage to have a slower pace and less action than a movie made for 40 grand or whatever it was nearly 25 years earlier. And there are no notable setpieces either. Fulci’s Zombie is kind of slow too, but at least there’s Zombie vs. Shark, the New York/boat sequence, etc. This has... uh... six shackled zombies wandering around every now and then.

Hell it barely even has any unintentionally funny moments; this wouldn’t even work as the B feature on Grindhouse night at the New Bev. Besides the aforementioned “accident”, the only time I felt compelled to laugh and yell WHAT? at the TV is when two of our heroes know that one of their friends is dead because they find two pairs of her shoes and “She only has two pairs”. And even that wouldn’t work at the Grindhouse because we’d all be drunk or half-asleep and thus not have the brain power to work out that there is no such thing as a woman who only owns two pairs of shoes.

Perhaps out of spite, Shriek Show has included a few extras, including the trailer. Oddly enough, it’s a fairly accurate trailer – instead of loading up on the movie’s few money shots and thus making it look exciting, it’s just as dull as the movie itself, and also barely makes sense unless you’ve seen the movie as half of it is comprised of shots from the back-story sans the context that would explain what you were looking at (no dialogue whatsoever in the trailer). It also spoils one character’s fate and another’s hidden agenda in one shot, so it’s perhaps the one trailer in the world that is only recommended for those who have seen the movie.

Then we get the trailers for all four Zombi “sequels” (including Killing Birds, which is sometimes known as Zombi 5), starting with Fulci’s (a “sequel” to Dawn of the Dead which was retitled Zombi in Italy, remember), for some reason – wouldn’t the Demons movie trailers make more sense? Killing Birds is the only one I haven’t seen yet, gotta get on that (I didn’t watch the trailer just in case it was as spoiler-y as the others). Finally, the only relevant extra are a pair of interviews with Lenzi and co-writer Olga Pehar (joined by Lenzi). That one is so brief I wondered why they didn’t just lump it in with the solo Lenzi one, but his is definitely worth watching as it’s the only truly entertaining part of the disc. As with many of his peers, Lenzi doesn’t bother to sugar-coat his thoughts on the film or his actors, so even when the discussion turns to something a little less exciting (such as why he never made any other full blown zombie movies) he turns it into a rant about one of the actors. Hell he even goes above and beyond the necessary “ouch” point; after explaining that the lead actress was a last minute replacement that he didn’t care for, he adds in that she was “short and not very attractive”, but in a manner of fact tone that doesn’t seem petty or mean, he’s just saying it like it is, the way absolutely no one in Hollywood ever does. He also dismisses the guy playing the lead (he has to look at the VHS box in order to recall his name) and scoffs at the Demons connection, claiming he hadn’t even seen Bava’s films. Well, he should, they’re a lot better than this thing.

What say you?

P.S. I have a note that says “F.F.” I don’t know if this is supposed to be for “The only way to watch this movie is to Fast Forward through the whole thing”, or “Hopefully I don’t see anything this bad at Fantastic Fest”, which I will be attending for my first time this coming September. Austin readers – welcome me with open arms and/or a beer!


Ghost Of Mae Nak (2005)

AUGUST 27, 2011


While trading in some DVDs at Second Spin I noticed that they were having a Buy 2 Get 1 free on used stuff, and as usually is the case I found two movies that I wanted and then couldn’t find the third I’ve been wanting to get (in this case, My Soul To Take). So I looked around for a while and found Ghost Of Mae Nak, a Thai flick from the now defunct US Tartan Extreme label. Now that they are gone I won’t have access to as many Asian horror flicks, as they were a primary source for me – but it’s also rare that any of them are really memorable.

And for the most part Mae Nak fits the bill, as it has a lot of traditional elements you see in these movies: the ghost is female, of course, and seeks revenge. There’s a body that needs to be put to rest properly, a few nightmare scenes, etc. Hell even their house looks like the one from the Ju-On movies. But there are a couple of things that, while not necessarily making the movie better than some of the others, will at least help me remember a little more about it 2-3 years from now when someone leaves a comment on the review asking about some particular plot point.

For starters, it’s actually kind of gory, which is rare for this type of film. It’s like, the scares themselves are pretty typical (the ghost loves to appear and open her mouth really wide to scare people), but the actual deaths are sort of miniature Final Destination sequences. There’s a great decapitation early on, and one guy manages to get himself burned with oil and then immolated on a rotisserie fire! But the best is this one asshole who steals something from our heroine and then runs through the city trying to avoid her. Everything is telegraphed; we see two guys hoisting some big plates of glass up the side of a building, a dog, a garbage truck... and then everything comes together, resulting in the guy being sliced in half by the glass (and that’s vertically sliced; like Wrong Turn 2 but this movie’s actually older), and then the dog eats his sliced off hand. Awesome.

Also: the people who die all pretty much deserve it. In the Grudge or Ring movies, a lot of the victims are just innocent folks who happened to live in the wrong house or watch the wrong movie, but here, all of our victims (and thus an inordinate number of characters) are scumbags. Their real estate agent is planning to screw them over, a couple of thieves steal all of their wedding gifts, the guy that gets sliced scams the bride out of 200 bucks... it’s like a Rob Zombie world where everyone is a degenerate. Oddly, there’s a creepy ex boyfriend who begs her not to get married and go back to him instead, but he survives I think. That dude shoulda gotten dumped into sewage or something.

But it’s not particularly suspenseful, let alone scary. Part of the problem is the back-story; our ghost is a woman who died while her husband, Mak, was off fighting in the war, and when he came back he didn’t realize she was a ghost. So she killed anyone who tried to reveal her true nature to him, because all she wanted was to keep their marriage “alive”. It’s not a bad story (in fact it’s a true one; Mae Nak is a well known Thai story and this is supposedly the 20th film based in whole or part on the legend), but there’s no mystery to it – we learn the entire thing before the halfway point in one long flashback. So now that we know Mae Nak doesn’t seek to harm either of our heroes, there isn’t much to invest us into the story. Something like Shutter (also a revenge story) at least had the good sense to spread the information out over the bulk of the movie, but here it’s too straightforward – Mae Nak is just out to get anyone who might threaten the new marriage of our heroes (also named Nak and Mak, for some weird reason).

To counter this, the script has Mak spend most of the movie in a coma, which isn’t a very successful workaround. On the plus side, this plot point spares us any further cutesy dialogue between the very much in love newlyweds, but it also robs the movie of potential scares. Every now and then they try to build suspense out of his failing medical condition, but we see Mae Nak save him from doctors who were inadvertently about to cause him further harm, so we know she’s looking out for him too and thus he will probably survive. It’s like the movie has some cool/fresh ideas but refuses to apply them in a way that can actually make the movie a little more suspenseful, which is a problem for a horror movie.

Especially one as long as this. Nearly all Asian horror flicks run longer than necessary, but here it’s especially obnoxious since we get all of the answers before the one hour mark (worse, the DVD case says the movie is 103 minutes, it’s actually around 108). The ex boyfriend character is pointless and could have been excised, and we spend so much time with the robbers that I began to wonder if the parts of the movie before they showed up were some Simpsons-esque tangent that only existed to get us to the “real” plot of their story. And the ending! On the commentary, writer/director/DP Mark Duffield says that it originally ended on a particular scene (which is where it should have ended), but he added this extra little epilogue. Well, he shouldn’t have, as it just drags things out even longer and doesn’t add anything of note to the story since all it turns out to be a damn dream anyway. My advice, if you watch the film, shut it off once they are told what will happen at the crematorium.

Back to the commentary, I was surprised that it even existed, since they don’t mention it on the box. Leave it to me to pick the one Asian horror flick directed by an English speaking director who wanted to talk about the film (if you’re new to the site, or just forgot – my OCD keeps me from writing a review until I watch all of the available extras), not to mention one that was even longer than expected. It’s a very dry track; as he was also the DP he talks about lighting certain scenes and other techy stuff that will only interest folks who are strongly interested in that field, as opposed to things that might appeal to everyone, i.e. the development of the story, mishaps on the set, and who was banging who. There are a few good tidbits here and there, but overall I’d only recommend it to die hard fans of the film. Same goes for the making of, which runs 65 minutes or so but contains no direct interviews. Instead it’s just a bunch of random production footage, occasionally given context via on-screen text (I particularly liked that the monk extras “supplied their own shaved heads” – as opposed to providing someone else’s shaved head?), but largely just dull behind the scenes. The best it gets is near the very end when they show how many takes it took to get the dog to eat the dummy hand. Poor pooch.

So it’s got some “outside the box” ideas to separate it from the other Ring wannabes, but it lacks a good mystery or feeling of dread for our heroine, and thus the good is canceled out by the bad, resulting in another average Asian ghost movie. If you love these type of movies it will probably entertain you, but if you’re a newcomer this wouldn’t be an ideal place to start.

What say you?


Sledgehammer (1983)

AUGUST 26, 2011


While not as off the wall batshit as Things, Sledgehammer (released via the same Innervision label) should appeal to the same sort of folks, and they even share some minor similarities. In addition to being shot on video, they both involve some friends going to a very bland house to party (read: sit around and drink while endlessly goofing off), and both feature the severe mistreatment of an innocent sandwich.

But whereas Things was a minor monster movie with Evil Dead style splatter, this is a straight up 80s slasher, with some vague supernatural elements tossed in for good measure (the killer appears to be a ghost and can also teleport his victims around, for some reason). Our seven obnoxious heroes show up at the house, dying one by one (or in a pair during sex - a slasher tradition that the film upholds), until only our obvious heroes remain. The killer is seemingly dispatched, our survivors walk away, and then a sequel is promised. So, same old shit, right?

On the contrary. Maybe on paper this didn't seem too "off", but the movie itself is a treasure trove of filmmaking decisions that are seemingly designed to make the audience either laugh unintentionally or just yell "WHAT?". For starters, it runs 87 minutes, but if you played everything at normal speed I think it would be well short of an hour. It's fine/normal to toss in a slo-mo shot or two during a kill scene, but director David Prior (long before Zombie Wars) has no concept of restraint or "everything in moderation", so we get slow motion versions of EVERYTHING. Kills, sex, food fights, walks through a field, luggage and sleeping bags being tossed in a pile, someone plugging in an electric appliance... you name it, it gets slowed down. On the commentary Prior admits the film came up a bit short and necessitated some of this, but unless they were contracted to deliver an 87 minute movie I think they could have eased off a bit. There are also a number of extended shots that make you wonder if the DVD is broken, particularly the opening establishing shot of the house that seems to run for a full minute before anything happens. Granted, it just adds to the charm, but in turn it's also a movie I'd never watch by myself again, not without the fast forward button handy.

Our heroes are also a wonderfully inept group of actors, none of whom have managed to go on to successful acting careers (the heroine's only other credit is "Girl on Table" in a softcore flick, for example). The only exception is hero Ted Prior, David's brother who appears in pretty much all of David's movies. He's not really much better than any of the others, but I guess maybe with more experience he could have improved. But he's not even the most memorable character here - that would be his buddy Jimmy (or Johnny, or Joey, I couldn't tell their names apart), who resembles John Oates and Geraldo Rivera. His amazing mustache and slow-motion love scene where he inexplicably covers his own ass are two of the film's highlights, as are his strange relationship issues with his girlfriend. It's very vague, but they either broke up or had a fight some point prior to the movie's beginning, and he spends most of the movie dodging her before they finally get down and do it (and then die).

Then there's the killer, who is named Killer (but he's got a mask, so he's still more distinct than the Final Exam guy). His motive is just as vague, in the prologue (and a recap 25 minutes later, in case we forgot) we see that his mother was cheating on her husband/his dad, which set him off, killing them both in the act. So now I guess he just sort of hangs out waiting for other folks to come around to the house, even though he apparently has supernatural powers which you'd think he'd want to exploit a little. As one of the guys from Bleeding Skull points out, his costume just sort of makes him look like someone's dad when you can't see the mask, as it's just a pair of jeans and an ugly plaid shirt. But the mask is fairly creepy; it's one of those clear plastic ones like in Alice, Sweet Alice. And he lives up to the title, in that he does have a sledgehammer that he frequently carries around with him, though curiously most of the film's kills are committed via knife. Someone needs to make a movie called Knife where everyone dies by sledgehammer so we can even this thing out.

If I had one legitimate complaint about the movie (keep in mind, it's bad, but the good kind of bad), it would be that they never go outside for a kill. There's a better than usual reason to keep them stranded there (they were dropped off and it's the middle of nowhere, as opposed to the usual "the car won't start" nonsense), but unless I missed it, I don't see why they couldn't have had 1-2 of them go for a stroll outside and get killed out there. It's not a particularly big house, so it would have also helped the film's logic a bit - why doesn't anyone hear the kills and/or wonder why someone could be gone for so long? Plus it's a slasher tradition to go outside for a kill or two, and they clearly had the ability to shoot outside given the "first getting to the house" scenes and the final shot, so this sort of baffles me.

Mondo has put together a pretty good package here, with the extras far less obnoxious than the bulk of the ones on Things. The Bleeding Skull commentary is a must listen; the two participants are a lot of fun to listen to as they critique/lovingly mock the movie, offer a few unrelated anecdotes (including a very funny one about Pigs aka Daddy's Deadly Darling), discuss how they got into this unique sub-genre of horror films, as well as often defending VHS. I personally don't get the VHS fetishists; other than the fact that yes, many movies are not available on DVD, there's absolutely nothing good about the format. Tapes wear out, rewinding an SP tape can take 5 minutes, they LOOK like ass, 99% of them are cropped... what exactly is the appeal? Hell they even take up twice as much space as DVDs. Do they still prefer to listen to music on cassette tape over CD, too? But whatever, if the appreciation leads to people discovering things like this, I got no complaints. The commentary with director Prior (moderated by a guy who seems to think that the film is legitimately great, or he's the most elusively sarcastic speaker of all time) has some fun trivia here and there but is also loaded with a lot of go nowhere questions (since Prior can't recall much) and the moderator's ridiculous over-praise (plus a few non-words like "improvision" instead of improvisation).

The rest of the stuff isn't substantial, but it's worth a look all the same; interviews with Zack Carlson and the guys from the Cinefamily, as well as an interview with Prior where he almost looks confused as to why he's talking about this thing almost 30 years later. Sadly none of the actors participated, I would have loved to see them reflect fondly on having entire bottles of mustard dumped on their head or how they all crammed into the van at the beginning (I seriously began to wonder if it was an actual clown car as people just kept jumping out of the van's side door). Then there are a couple trailers for other Innervision titles, including Things. Oh, and the movie has a little text card at the very top of the film asking you to increase your speakers' bass levels for maximum enjoyment, probably because the movie doesn't seem to have any bass to it at all.

So while it's not as gonzo as the Things or Pieces of the world, it shares that je ne sais quoi that I find quite charming, and again reaffirms my belief that doing Horror Movie A Day is worth it. No way in hell I'd ever have watched this movie unless I was doing this, and then I'd forever be denied the chance to see a guy do the lamest Bill Murray impression of all time.

What say you?

P.S. This is not a trailer (couldn't find one), but a montage of whoever made it's favorite moments.


Amityville: Dollhouse (1996)

AUGUST 25, 2011


Believe it or not, Amityville: Dollhouse is actually the EIGHTH film in the series, and actually the final in the original series before the Platinum Dunes reboot. There are currently a couple of films in development but I’m not sure what continuity they belong to, if any – but does it matter, at this point? This is possibly the most tangentially connected major franchise of all time. It’s basically a series of movies about a particular window pattern.

Anyway, this one continues the sort of anthological idea set up in the 4th movie – objects from the house carried its “legacy” around the country, so there was a lamp, a clock, a mirror, and now, obviously, a dollhouse. It’s a shame that they all went with big house movies though; the concept seemed to be design to free the filmmakers to do something different each time out, but this (and what I know about the others) is pretty much the same sort of shit – isolated house, slightly fractured family unit, etc. Why not do an inner city one, or Christ, even set one in a snowy climate?

So basically, as you may have guessed, this one doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. At times it almost feels like a straight up remake of the original, right down to the fact that the dad is newly married to the mom, except two of the kids are his (the mom left for reasons left maddeningly vague). His new wife has a son who doesn’t really like any of them, and he’s also a major geek, testing his pet rat in a maze and playing with microscopes and what not. I kept thinking that he’d be a major character, like maybe his bookish ways would lead him to be the one to discover the history of the place and the haunted dollhouse, but no. Instead he just sees a zombie apparition of his dead dad, another potentially interesting subplot that has no meaningful payoff. Before he even really DOES anything, the kid suddenly knows zombie dad is bad news and instantly switches allegiance to his stepdad. Way to flip-flop, ya little bastard.

In fact each family member has their own issue with the house, and like the kid’s, none of them really have a satisfying arc. The stepmom suddenly starts fantasizing about the teen stepson, but never does anything about it (if anything he seems to be hitting on HER at times despite not having any supernatural reasons for doing so). He has a girlfriend that seems to enrage the house, as every time she comes over something freaky happens, always with unintentionally hilarious results. I should note that the girlfriend is played by the girl who played Eric’s sister on That 70’s Show until she got canned for being too drunk all the time, and if anyone was inexplicably crushing on her over Mila or Laura, you should be happy with one particular scene.

But most obnoxiously underutilized is the fact that the dollhouse acts as a mirror for the much larger, real house. So when the kid’s pet rat runs into it, all of a sudden there’s a giant rat in the house (easily the film’s highlight, even if all you see is its ass sticking out from under the bed). Or when a window opens on the dollhouse, a real one opens in the house and a minor tornado blows in. If I was making this movie, I’d go nuts with the potential – have someone spill a drink in it and cause an interior flood, or maybe have an insect fly in and then suddenly the family would be terrorized by Mothra. But no! After the rat they barely ever do anything fun with the idea, opting for typical (read: boring) haunted house scenarios and a ridiculous demon that is somehow behind all of the supernatural goings-on.

Worse, I don’t know if it’s just the shit DVD or the original movie, but either way this has one of the worst sound mixes I’ve ever seen in a professional production. Everything sounds looped or dubbed, and random sound effects like people opening doors or brushing off a table have this strange electronic quality to them, like they were using old Nintendo games for their sound FX library. The dad in particular always sounded more like a narrator than an on-screen character, and things that SHOULD be kind of under the breath (like “I thought I closed that...”) or whatever are booming and distinct. Very weird.

In short, somehow manages to be the weakest entry in a very underwhelming series. Most telling is that most of the scares in the first act revolve around a light turning on by itself inside the dollhouse, and none are ever as creepy as the moment where the same thing happens at the end of Dream Warriors. As I’ve said in the past, haunted house movies aren’t exactly my favorite sub-genre, but I can recognize a good one when I see it. This ain’t it. No wonder it killed the franchise for 8 years or so.

What say you?


The Reef (2010)

AUGUST 24, 2011


If you thought the only problem with Open Water was the lack of victims, then The Reef is the answer to all of your prayers; mimicking the plot and pace but with FOUR people instead of two. To be fair, there’s a sort of plot beyond waiting around to die – they had recently left an island (by boat) and plan to swim back to it, instead of just treading water in one place like the Open Water folk, but otherwise it’s pretty much the same damn movie, albeit with far more tolerable characters.

In fact one thing that struck me right away after their boat sunk was how relatively calm they were about the whole thing. They had no means of communication, no food/water of note, and were not in any flight paths – in other words, they were screwed even if there weren’t any sharks around. But yet once they all climb up on the bottom of their boat (still floating above water, though not for long) there’s no panic, no idiotic arguing, nothing. They’re all just sort of sitting around calmly planning their next move as if they were only mildly inconvenienced by the whole thing. Not, “OH SHIT! WE’RE FUCKED!” but more “Oh, *sigh*, I guess we’ll have to swim 20 miles back to shore and hope the sharks don’t get us. Anyone got any gum?”

Of course, this means that you won’t be wishing the sharks will eat them sooner than later, but this also makes it more of a shame that Andrew Traucki’s script doesn’t really develop any of the characters beyond the basics (name and how they relate to each other). There’s plenty of time before the sharks start eating our heroes, but the time is spent on a lot of generic dialogue that doesn’t really make these folks any more interesting to us, as well as repetitive “I saw something!” scenes in which one person sees something (we never do) and the guy with the goggles scans around underwater. Sometimes this bit will end with the sight of a shark way off in the distance, but usually not. There’s some minor suspense to the affair, but Traucki could have really made things interesting if we had more reason to care about these folks (let’s be honest – no one is watching hoping that they ALL make it out alive, or else there’s no chompy-chomp).

OR, he could have given some more inner conflict to the group, as even what little there is of that sort of stuff is pretty generic. Our two obvious heroes used to date and are still sort of in love, so you know that A. they’ll make up and B. one of them will die saving the other. It’s just how these movies go, and the predictability of this, the only “subplot” of note, doesn’t help the movie feel like a giant rerun. It was far more interesting when the 5th member was trying to mess with the others’ heads before they separated. This guy didn’t want to swim, opting to stay on the floating remains of the boat, but that didn’t stop him from trying to con one of the women into giving him her wetsuit in case he had to go in the water later. The movie definitely could have used more of that; not outright villainy, but just more “I’m out for myself” behavior or minor conflict to keep the tension up.

Spoiler in next paragraph!

I was also disappointed by the lack of balls in the climax. Throughout the movie there’s one guy doing all of the heavy lifting – he goes back into the sunken boat to find some supplies, he figures out which direction to swim, and he finds a surfboard (and cuts it in half, a sound that makes my ears bleed) for the others to use while he relies only on his legs/stamina to keep him afloat. In other words, if anyone deserves to live, it’s him, since the others are just a bunch of dead weight. Naturally, at the end, he dies, after helping the girl to safety. But it’s not in a heroic way, which would have been fine (like, cutting his leg and swimming in an opposite direction to ward the shark away) – he’s begging her to help him up and she, worthless person that she is, uselessly attempts to pull him up. Worse, in the real story that this is partially based on, the male was the only survivor, so they changed the “facts” and ended up with the most blandly traditional ending ever, instead of doing something a bit more interesting and having a true story to back them up if anyone questioned it.

But while it doesn’t live up to Open Water’s anti-commercial tendencies, it certainly LOOKS much better than that film. Both used only real shark footage, but this one is the better made film, hands down. The scenery is gorgeous, and even when things are hectic the camerawork is much more cinematic, as opposed to Open Water’s very shaky, almost documentary-esque approach. And the scares actually work better, IMO, not only do we have more victims (and thus more tension to the attacks – in Open Water we knew they’d both be alive at least until the final 10 minutes or so), but they’re staged a bit better when they do occur. Plus, the fact that they are actively attempting to reach safety makes their plight much more nerve-wracking, particularly when minor “islands” (rocks that break the water, one of which not even big enough for them all to fit on) are in sight and the sharks are seemingly trying to block their way. In OW they just floated around in one basic spot, yelling at each other, so when the sharks came it was like “oh no, an asshole who isn’t doing anything might get eaten!”

Also: scary ass turtle corpse. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m afraid of pretty much all fish/water mammals, including turtles, so when they find a corpse of one (presumably eaten by one of the sharks) I actually jumped a bit at its reveal. Dead or alive, those things freak me the hell out. I’m also inexplicably afraid of slicing my foot on some jagged rock or coral or something (that scene in Cast Away – GAH!), so I liked that they worked in a bit of that as a possible danger as well.

Basically, I don’t like the water much, is what I’m saying, so there is a sort of basic “what if this happened to me” fear that allows me to get caught up in this stuff much more than say, a movie about some folks that were stranded in the desert or the woods. However, even with that on the movie’s side, I can still recognize that they were just sort of going through the motions, doing nothing beyond what you’d expect to see from this sort of movie. It’s enjoyable to a degree, but cripplingly unimaginative and “safe”.

What say you?


The Caller (2011)

AUGUST 23, 2011


If you’re the type of person who hears the fantastical plot of a movie (say, “Oil drillers go into space to blow up an asteroid”) and says “That sounds stupid, to hell with this movie”, then avoid The Caller like the plague. Not only does it revolve around a woman from 1979 “stalking” a woman in 2011 via the telephone, but (spoiler?) they don’t explain WHY this is happening. So not only will you get enraged at the plot, you won’t get the satisfaction of complaining about how their explanation was equally stupid.

For the rest of us less ignorant folks, the movie’s actually pretty good. It might have been a better long-form episode of an anthology series (like Masters of Horror), as it gets a bit drawn out, but as it was originally a short film I guess that is to be expected. And they could have filled that time with nonsensical exposition, explaining how this thing worked, and maybe even worked in some sort of deus ex machina that allowed the minor “time travel” element to be used in order to secure a happier ending, so we should be grateful that they opted to just sort of “double up” on certain scenes.

For example, our heroine, Mary (Twilight’s Rachelle LeFevre, who is quite good and endlessly watchable) has a violent ex husband, and he seems to be hellbent on getting their dog back. So we get not one but two scenes where he comes over, plays with the dog a bit, and then makes vague threats and grabs her arm or something (with the dog making no effort to protect her – why does she want him?). And without getting too far into spoiler territory (for now), our evil phone caller plays a very unusual card against Mary twice, with even the dialogue sounding pretty much the same. So again, it’s not the tightest script in the world.

But it more or less works. First off, it’s a remarkably good looking film, with Matthew Parkhill directing more like an indie drama than a horror film, to its benefit. A giant chunk of the film takes place in Mary’s kitchen, but it never gets visually dull (having LeFevre front and center doesn’t hurt – swoon), and I actually kind of dug the lack of “horror” scenes, i.e. we never actually see any of the terrible things that Rose does, and discover what happened from Mary’s point of view. The Puerto Rico locale adds plenty of rarely seen flair (I was so happy to see that the film didn’t take place in Los Angeles or some other traditional city), and you can actually feel how hot it is – for a while I was wondering if Mary was simply cracking up, with the heat making her condition worse.

Plus, LeFevre is backed up by a good cast, including fellow vamp actor Stephen Moyer as a potential love interest, and the always welcome/awesome Luis Guzman as one of her neighbors. It’s not a very action packed movie (the plot dictates that nearly everything happens off-screen, in fact), but that allows us to spend more time than usual with these folks and actually care about their fate. I legitimately felt bummed at some of the events in the film, which is rare, and even more impressive when it occurs in such an admittedly far-fetched narrative.

Spoilers ahead!

See, the nerve-wracking thing about the movie is that the woman on the phone (Rose, played by Drag Me To Hell’s Lorna Raver) holds all the cards. She’s in the past but has the ability to affect the future, i.e. Mary’s life, which at first she does in harmless ways (drawing things on her walls), but ultimately gets crazier and more violent. However Mary has no way of fighting back – no matter what she does in 2011, she can’t exactly “send back” a way of stopping her, and thus sits helplessly on the phone even as Rose does harm to her younger self. I read someone say “Don’t answer the phone”, but it’s not that simple – by this point Rose knows everything about Mary and can still do damage to her in the past whether she answers the phone or not. It’s actually quite a creepy scenario, and the turn of events are unexpectedly sad and grim.

Of course, when dealing with this sort of stuff, the logic part of your brain might kick into overdrive, not unlike a typical time travel movie. And that’s where the script’s drawn out nature hurts a bit. If they had kept up the suspense/scares/action, it might be easy to miss a few of the unexplained minor plot holes. For example, at one point Rose kills someone in 1979, thus preventing their existence in 2011. LeFevre remembers this person and asks around, but Moyer cannot remember him. Why does LeFevre retain this memory and not Moyer? Also, whenever you’re dealing with any sort of “change the past to affect the future” you know at some point you’ll see something change right before your eyes, which never makes any sense. LeFevre sees something change as she hears it happen on the phone, and while it’s a very cool effect, it’s nonsense – it should be an instantaneous change, not one that you can see form in “real time”.

So if you’re an overly analytical type, you gotta be prepared for some eye-rolling, and if you can’t “just go with it”, then again, find another movie to watch. This one’s aimed toward folks like me, who judge a movie not on its actual plot but how well that plot is conveyed, regardless of whether it holds up to real world logic. And by that measure, I have yet to see a better movie that blends Single White Female style “unhealthy obsession leads to murder” thrills with a magic telephone. It’s coming out in limited release this weekend, but I think it will play just as well/better at home - especially if you have a landline that might ring to spook you. I don’t, because my cat ate the damn wire that leads into the house and I’m too busy defending magic telephone movies to get it fixed.

What say you?


Camp Hell (2010)

AUGUST 22, 2011


As I’ve mentioned before, I was raised Catholic. Not strict, but I went to church every Sunday (actually usually Saturday afternoon) and on the Holy Days, and 8 years of Catholic school. Never had much of an issue with it beyond the clothes, and even continued going to church for a while once I went to college and thus didn’t “have to”. I didn’t switch religions or have some sort of epiphany - I just sort of let my obligations drift away, not unlike how I stopped watching The Simpsons. Missed it once or twice, got used to it, and before you know it it’s been like a decade since I went to mass. Sorry, God/mom. But anyway, I think that should make me an ideal viewer for Camp Hell (formerly Camp Hope), since it doesn’t seem to really take a stance for or against religion.

Now, they’re marketing this thing as a horror movie, and while I don’t have a problem qualifying it as one (there’s a demon lurking around), what I found most terrifying was the idea that these places exist as depicted in the film. I mean, I know some forms of Catholicism are stricter than others, and that these religious camps can be found pretty much everywhere, but are they THIS strict (read: insane)? I get that they teach kids about the importance of abstinence and require them to pray seemingly every other hour, and even when one of the counselors finds/destroys one kid’s "Spawn" comic book, I figured it was within the boundaries of what they actually do (since Spawn is actually from Hell and depicted as a hero).

But then a kid has to apologize for listening to Journey, and he is reprimanded. I’m sorry: JOURNEY? The band whose big hit is called “FAITHfully” (not a religious song, but you know what I mean)? If they wanted to condemn the idea of listening to evil rock music, why pick one of the least offensive rock bands of all time? Even fucking Train is more hardcore. Marilyn Manson or even Metallica would have been at least somewhat understandable, but by name-checking Journey, I suddenly realized that the filmmakers were possibly depicting the religious folks as the evil ones.

And then throughout the film I remained confused as to whose “side” the filmmakers were on. It’s a “Christian horror film” so you assume that the movie exists to promote and maybe even recruit folks (youths, specifically) to religion, but even The Exorcist makes a stronger case for the importance of having religion in your life. Hell, the only character in the film who is seriously harmed (catatonic, in fact) is the priest! Bruce Davison is the head of the camp who tells the kids that they’ll go to hell if they masturbate and all that good stuff, and even though he never does anything against God, he ends up being “fouled” by the demon and basically left for dead. So it’s anti-religion, then? Make up your mind, movie.

It certainly couldn’t possibly inspire any kid to pay more attention in church, let alone devote his life to his beliefs the way some of the older characters do. At one point our hero Tommy has to apologize for making out with and dry humping his girlfriend (well, I guess friend that is a girl, for these yahoos) to his very religious father (Andrew McCarthy, for some reason), who tells him that he is disappointed in him and he will burn in hell or whatever. I’m sorry, but if I told my dad that I brought a girl to orgasm when I was 16, I think he’d buy me a beer, and he didn’t even drink! But jokes aside, it doesn’t make it look like a very fun or even worthwhile way of life, since they pretty much keep you from doing anything fun (they’re not even allowed to go to a carnival). Nor does it seemingly present any sort of cautionary tale – Tommy does these terrible things (this is the most vivid dry humping I’ve ever seen in a movie, I think, the girl even comments about his now sticky pants) and then the demon takes out the priest and leaves him alone. Then he renounces his faith and throws his bible out the window. So uh... win-win, I guess? No demonic possession, and no more waking up at 7 am on Sunday. What is the drawback? I could see if he renounced his faith and then got run over or was diagnosed with instant death cancer or something, so the movie could just be a giant “You see what happens when you go against God!” message, but the movie seems to suggest God would rather you just enjoyed your life as long as you weren’t doing anything too terrible.

Oddly enough, the girlfriend is named Melissa and played by actress Valentina de Angelis, who played a Melissa in yesterday’s Bereavement. Oddly, both films were shot in 2007 and have been on the shelf for a while as well. I like to think that it’s actually the same character; after her shameful dry humping escapades that got her kicked out of Camp Hope, she was ostracized from her family, and moved on her own to a small town in neighboring Pennsylvania (this movie takes place in Jersey), where she got a job at a shitty diner while working toward completing high school. And thus, God, much like Final Destination’s Death, finally caught up to her and used his mysterious ways to have her killed for her sins. That or it’s just a weird coincidence.

The DVD case prominently features Jesse Eisenberg and even puts his name above the title, even though he’s only in two scenes (actually one scene and a shot) and never even sets foot in the titular camp. He’s another kid who has “let the demon in” and is thus all messed up (so now we’re back to “Believe in God... OR ELSE!” land), and Davison, who visits Eisenberg in the mental institute before heading off to camp, believes that the same thing is now happening to Tommy. It’s pretty obvious that this thing is just seeing release now thanks to his newfound fame, but the funny thing is that it’s actually one of his more unique performances, in that he’s not playing a snarky, “smarter than everyone else” type of guy (it’s closer to Donnie Wahlberg’s performance in Sixth Sense, if anything). Good to know he CAN actually play other types of roles, just a shame we had to learn about it in such a silly, pointless flick.

His abbreviated 2nd scene is presented in full along with two other, wholly worthless excised bits featuring more praying at the camp, as if the movie didn’t have enough as it was. The only other extra feature is a trailer, which misspells Dana Delany’s name and shows pretty much every horror shot in the film. It also employs the “Heavenly gates” version of the Lionsgate logo, whereas the film itself goes with the “Dungeon/Hell” version (so even the damn logo can’t decide which side the movie falls on). Sadly, there is no commentary or making of where first time director/writer (but longtime producer) George Van Buskirk explains just who in the hell he was making this movie for, exactly, because I swear it exists solely to be made fun of by people like me. You hardly need a movie to convince a regular person that extreme religious beliefs can endanger people, and any random pamphlet you find on the ground outside a ball game or concert can do a better job of promoting a particular faith. Camp Hell seems to suggest both things are true, and thus just wastes the time of a bunch of good actors.

What say you?


Bereavement (2010)

AUGUST 21, 2011


Prior to HMAD, it was very rare that I watched indie horror films (likewise, since HMAD, I see a lot fewer Hollywood films. Time is not an unlimited resource; watching Beneath The Mississippi means missing out on Horrible Bosses or Green Lantern), but I rented Malevolence in 2005 or 2006 after hearing about its numerous tips of the hat to Halloween and early Friday the 13th movies (in that case, I think it’s just the sack mask, which could also be a reference to The Town That Dreaded Sundown). And it was on that DVD’s bonus features that I learned that the film was actually the middle part of a planned trilogy. Thus, I have been excited to see Bereavement for quite a long time now.

Sadly/annoyingly, I had to wait even longer than expected. The film was shot in late 2007, which would usually mean a 2008 release, but it wouldn’t be until 2010 that it had its first screening. Worse, it actually went theatrical in March, but not in LA, so I had to wait even longer. And then the Blu-ray came and was jam-packed with bonus material (plus the movie was just under two hours long), so I had to wait a few more days to watch until I had time to go through it all for the review. Come on, movie, work with me here!

Of course, none of that would matter if it was worth the wait, which it ALMOST is. I enjoyed the film, and give full props to writer/director Stevan Mena for making such a harsh horror film that is, for all intents and purposes, a sequel to an existing property. With a bigger budget and a few name actors, it could have very easily been turned into a more “safe” film, but if anything it makes Malevolence look like the sanitized version. However, it takes a while to get going, and I feel that a big chunk of the movie is sort of anti-climactic because we already know where the story goes after this.

Note – spoilers for both films are unavoidable, since a big part of this film’s success is how it logically ties into its “sequel”, so I would advise not reading until you have at least seen Malevolence (I will avoid Bereavement spoilers as much as possible, for now). I would also suggest seeing Bereavement first, since one of its problems is due to its “prequel-ness”, but if you were watching the story in order it wouldn’t be an issue.

Anyway, in Malevolence we learn that the killer is Martin, a boy who was kidnapped at a young age and seemingly turned into a Jason/Michael-esque masked killer who is impervious to pain. So when Bereavement starts with Martin as he is about to be kidnapped, and then depicts his “training” at the hands of THIS film’s killer, a guy named Sutter, you can quickly sort of guess how it will end up - Martin will take over, leading to the events of Malevolence where he was a stand-alone killer. And it works; unlike a generic sort of “he came from a broken home” excuse, we actually see him shaped into a killer in a way that you don’t often see in a movie. See, his affliction not only keeps him from feeling physical pain, but it also blocks his empathy – he doesn’t understand how anyone else feels when THEY are hurt, either. That, plus the fact that he’s basically raised by a killer, sort of makes him the most unsympathetic, vicious killer of all time.

But it just takes so long to get there. We know Martin eventually turns bad, so the fact that it’s dragged out to around 100 minutes is a bit much for Mena to ask. Especially when it’s repetitive; we see 3-4 young girls get killed by Sutter (with increasing participation from Martin), and these scenes, while fine on their own, feel a bit much in one sitting, especially as they feature a lot of upsetting screaming. See, there are two kinds of screams – the usual sort of “AAAH!” when you see the killer or a dead friend, and then there’s the extended, painful shrieking that occurs when someone is being tied up and/or tortured, which is how this one is. Not since Martyrs have I felt like I should go apologize and/or explain to my neighbors that I was watching a dark and violent film and NOT beating my wife or something, as these scenes didn’t even have music or multiple voices to give away their movie-ness. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing – if anything I was impressed (again) that the film was so uncompromising; but they definitely could have cut down on them and gotten the point made, which not only reduce the bloated running time but also keep home viewers from possible angry phone calls from the landlord.

The bloated length does pay off in the other main story thread, however (SPOILERS AHEAD!!!), as we spend a lot of time with the hero family, led by Michael Biehn (playing a normal, nice guy role for a change). Due to an unrelated tragedy, their niece Allison (Alexandra Daddario) has come from Chicago to live with them in their little middle of nowhere town, so there’s the usual stuff about not having anything to do, and of course the only guy in town she takes a liking to is someone Biehn doesn’t care for... typical family drama stuff. But the time we spend with them gets us to know them more than most horror movie characters (even the mother/daughter pair in Malevolence), which makes the tragedy of their arc all the more upsetting and shocking when it occurs.


And this is another issue where the prequel nature somewhat harms the film. We Malevolence fans know that Martin is alive and still killing folks in that movie, which means that he gets away. We also learn that the Sutter meat plant is still there and loaded with evidence about his crimes dating back years (this movie takes place five years before Malevolence). So, obviously, Biehn or anyone else in his family clearly never told the police about him/the place, which means, uh... they’re not talking, "for some reason". Even if you remove that logic, the last 20 minutes or so revolves around Daddario’s attempts to rescue Martin from Sutter, and this being a direct prequel to the other movie means it has to end with him killing SOMEONE, rendering the outcome of this stuff a foregone conclusion and robbing some of it of its impact. As with Star Wars, knowing how everyone turns out and who is alive when it happens keeps the audience a bit too far ahead of the characters; we know she shouldn’t be trying to save this budding murderer just as we know Amidala won’t be assassinated or trampled by a giant spider until she gives birth to Luke and Leia. To its credit, the Martin character is one of only two that are in both films (the other being a borderline anonymous cop), and it actually has very few “winks” to Malevolence, so this is pretty much the only thing that ties the two together of note. Just a shame it’s something that kills a bit of the suspense.

However, it makes it that much easier to recommend watching them in order, as you won’t be “lost” by watching this one. In fact, I commend Mena for presenting a story that doesn’t seem reverse engineered from the start point of the next chapter the way that Star Wars and other prequels have felt. He clearly had this thing all worked out in his head (at least in general), and never stopped to total nonsense, like showing the younger versions of the characters from Malevolence standing in front of a bank or something stupid like that (i.e. what Lucas did in his movies).

On the flipside, Mena has grown considerably as a director since the other film, something that can fully be appreciated by watching them in release order. The budget wasn’t huge, but it’s a terrific looking film, and I was truly shocked to discover that certain day-lit scenes were shot after sundown, and also at another interior scene that was actually shot inside a partial set in the middle of a snowy field. He blends these elements together flawlessly, and it’s just a plain great looking film to boot, courtesy of (new) DP Marco Cappetta. Rare for a modern low budget horror film, it was actually shot on 35mm film (hurrah!) and this time he went to 2.35 (up from Malevolence’s 1.85), which gives it a bit of that Carpenter/Halloween feel, particularly in the establishing shots of the meat plant and a few scare scenes.

And that’s the other thing - he’s cut down on his Halloween obsession. While his music still sounds a bit familiar (a bit unavoidable, since it IS a sequel after all and should have similar cues), there are almost no obvious references this time around, and believe me I’d spot them. The framing of the scene where Sutter first meets Martin seems like a shoutout to the scene in Halloween where Michael encounters one of Tommy’s bullies, and you can almost hear Brian Andrews shriek “The MYERS HOUSE?!” on some of those slow tracking shots as someone approaches the plant, but otherwise there’s nothing of the sort – neither killer even wears a mask, nor is there much stalking. Even some that might be at least inspired by Halloween (such as when Sutter follows Allison from his truck, not unlike Michael following Tommy) have their own feel/look; stuff you might only realize later on when thinking about it (like I did just now!) instead of instantly saying “Oh, he’s doing Halloween here.”

The performances are also better. I was quite smitten with the female bank robber in the first film, but I am not surprised that she hasn’t been in a movie since, either (and she wasn’t even the weakest in the lot). There’s a few clunky line readings here and there, but otherwise this is a much more solid film on the acting side of things, with Mena getting terrific performances from the two child actors, as well as clearly finding some great screamers for the victims (all with local talent, I believe). And Biehn does some great work, it’s nice to see him playing a normal guy for a change (and not even a cop!). Unfortunately most of John Savage’s role ended up on the cutting room floor; he only appears in two scenes, one of which seems left in just to justify his character being in the film at all. As with the big cameo in Fright Night, I am convinced that if he was just some no-name actor, all of his role would have been excised. A shame, really, but Mena’s explanations are valid.

He talks about it a bit on the commentary, which covers all of the usual bases for an indie production like this: not having time for certain things, calling in favors (convincing a farmer not to harvest his crops so that they could maintain continuity being one highlight), etc. He also surprisingly says little about the ties to Malevolence; at one point we see that red/green door that he was so proud of on that film (as it’s a really clunky reference to Freddy’s sweater) and he doesn’t even point it out. I wish there WAS some sort of “guide” type extra pointing out all of the little references like that, but maybe they are saving it for a 3rd film (which is mentioned briefly, but without as much as a hint as to when it might happen or what it will be about). The track also seems to be edited together from two different sessions, as his voice/recording level changes a few times.

Then there’s a 35 minute making of piece which also plays out in a traditional manner, covering casting and production with a lot of “they were great” sentiment. Savage probably has more screen time here than he does in the feature film, and again, they don’t really talk about Malevolence much (though we do see that the clapper says “Malevolence 2”). Like the film, it probably could have been cut down a bit, especially when they randomly just show the actor playing Sutter goofing off for what seems like three full minutes. Much more interesting is the 7 minute interview with Mena, where he discusses both films a bit more and talks about the story. Then there are about 10 minutes’ worth of deleted scenes, not all of the ones that were cut (the film’s first cut ran about three hours, and rough cuts shown to audiences ran over two; even with all of this material put back in we’d still be under 2 hours), but it does have some of Savage’s stuff, so that’s good. Unfortunately most of it deals with a rather silly subplot about Sutter seeing the ghost of one of his victims, something I am glad they cut (Mena also details a little anecdote involving a particular camera problem with these scenes, fun stuff) Nothing that would be missed much, in other words. The trailer, a TV spot, and a still gallery round things out. Overall a decent package; nothing spectacular, but it’s all worth a look if you enjoyed the film.

As for the AV quality, again, the picture is flawless. Detail is vivid throughout, and while the blacks do look a bit crushed at times I think it’s intentional, so it’s not an issue. The sound mix is also above average for a low budget film, though there wasn’t a lot of rear activity beyond some music and ambient sounds. But compared to Malevolence (or yesterday’s movie) it’s a Ben Burtt level THX mix that you should use to show off your system.

So while it had a few missteps and could have used another, more vicious editor, I think Malevolence fans will be pleased, and serial killer fans who are unfamiliar with the story will find it to be an interesting take on the “serial killer origin” tale. Daddario is a great young heroine and ranks as one of the better characters in this sort of role in quite some time, and of course Biehn is always a welcome presence. Now, Mr. Mena, let’s see part 3 sooner than later, yeah? And if you’re reading this, email me about showing Malevolence for a HMAD screening!

What say you?


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