The Returned (2013)

FEBRUARY 21, 2014


I've only been to the Music Hall 3 cinema in Los Angeles a few times, but everything I've seen there has been a really bad horror movie. It's where I endured The Lost Coast Tapes, Don't Go In The Woods, and last week's Ganzfeld Haunting; the closest I came to having an enjoyable experience there was Frankenstein's Army, which at least offered some great monster designs (in a bad movie). So when The Returned played there in similar fashion to those (one late show per day, for one week only), I didn't have much hope - I was mostly going out of my weird obligation to see every theatrically released horror movie that I am aware of, regardless of interest. But lo and behold, I liked it! The Music Hall 3 curse is broken!

It's ironic, then, that it'd barely even count as a horror movie. Sure, it's a zombie film at its core, and there are a couple of scares (though a broken plate in a non-zombie scene provided the biggest jolt), but it's really more of a drama that takes a grounded, realistic (well, relatively realistic) approach to a zombie outbreak scenario. As with many a zombie film, a cure is attempted, but there's something that I don't think I've seen before - a medication that keeps the zombie-isms at bay for infected patients. Like a diabetic taking his insulin, the titular Returned have to give themselves a shot of this certain protein every day, and if they do that - they'll be fine. It's those who miss their doses that you have to worry about - something we see once or twice just to sell the danger (and get a few typical zombie shots for the trailer), but otherwise it's a pretty zombie-free world. The outbreak was contained, and the Returned all take their medication, allowing the world to carry on as more or less normal.

So what's the hook? Well, for the first half, there's a focus on folks who fear the Returned aren't as normal as they are said to be, and want to kill them all. It's treated very much like a disease - we even get a conservative blowhard type suggesting that they ship all of the Returned off to an island compound, not unlike his counterparts did in the early days of AIDS. There's a fear among the Returned of even telling their loved ones and friends about their condition - hero Alex (Kris Holden-Ried) tells his best friend over dinner in a manner not unlike someone admitting they have cancer, or "coming out" to their parents. Protesters harass the doctors who work to find a permanent cure, some folks use "the returned" in a derogatory manner... the movie's budget isn't very big, so it's not exactly the most fleshed out scenario - but director Manuel Carballo and screenwriter Hatem Khraiche provide enough to sell the basic concept, which is more than I can say for most indie zombie films.

The other storyline involves Alex's wife Kate, played by the very lovely Emily Hampshire. She's a leading researcher on the cure, and is secretly stocking up on the protein in order to keep Alexfrom zombie-ing out - which we soon learn is a necessity as there is a worldwide shortage looming. This stuff reminded me a bit of Deranged, the Korean virus thriller that also focused on the lengths people would go to for vaccines and medication (Steven Soderbergh's Contagion also dealt with this to some degree). When the stock completely runs out, Kate is attacked for her tiny supply, and there's even some morally gray material to chew on: SHE was hording supplies, knowing that the shortage was coming (sort of like insider trading in a way) - so how is what she's doing really any better than a man trying to save his child or wife? Is it better to let several Returned live an extra week or so, or let just one live for a few extra months?

HEAVY STUFF, in other words - this isn't a movie that starts with medication running out so that we can have a typical zombie outbreak, but focuses on the looming threat of such a thing happening. By focusing on a handful of characters (adults at that!), we get to know and actually care about them and their plight, making us question what we'd do when things get desperate. It's funny, I watched the latest episode of Walking Dead before I left for the theatre, and while I've never been as hard on the show as some of my peers, I found this one to be a particularly frustrating and obnoxious episode, the sort of thing that makes me understand why folks hate on it so much. It's season 4 of the show, and not only do I still not really know much about most of the characters (it took me 20 minutes to even remember Beth's name, and she was the focus of its first half!), I still don't really have much of an attachment to them - when they built a sequence out of the possibility that Glenn had died and turned zombie, I found myself not really caring either way. And that's a guy that's been around for all 40 episodes or whatever it's been! Here, it only took 80 minutes for me to care about Kate and Alex - I was legit upset when it looked like all hope was lost and he started making preparations to keep himself isolated from others should he turn.

I really only have two complaints about the film. One would be that it could use some tightening - there were a couple of lulls, and too many shots of people driving somewhere or walking from their car to the office or whatever - not really padding, just filler that could have been tossed from a movie that didn't have a lot of action in it. I know there will be many who find the movie simply boring, and that's their loss - but the film definitely isn't rushed at any point. The other would be a rather stupid, unnecessary epilogue that I would encourage you to skip, unless you're one of those nuts who liked the idiotic microwave scene at the end of the Last House on the Left remake. I won't spoil its content, but you'll know it when you see the movie, and I hope you can agree that the character would probably have better things to do with his/her time than what is being suggested. It seemed tacked on to give the movie a less dreary ending, but for me all it did was leave me with a bad taste in my mouth.

Otherwise, I was really impressed. I'm always looking for a new angle on the zombie movie, and while it does share some basic similarities with Les Revenants (aka They Came Back, which has been turned into a TV show called The Returned, confusing the hell out of everyone), I think they're different enough to consider this pretty original (for starters, at least in the movie, there was no traditional zombie stuff). I don't know if I can honestly enjoy yet another ripoff of Day or Dawn of the Dead, with evil humans and survivors holing up in some ____ to yell at each other until the inevitable zombie siege in the final reel - but I can definitely appreciate another movie that looks at it from another, serious point of view. Good job, everyone!

What say you?


Blu-Ray Review: Bad Dreams (1988)

FEBRUARY 17, 2014


I didn't think much of Bad Dreams when I first saw it way back in the early days of HMAD (yes, I had missed out on it as a kid), but after giving it another look I realize I was a bit harsh. It's not a great movie, but it's trying something new and is fairly well made for a debut, plus offers a strong cast of genre faves and solid character actors - including many adults, which was pretty rare for horror in 1988, especially in a "slasher" movie like this. And my only other viewing was on a pan & scan cable transfer, so I certainly appreciated this high-def second go around whenever the lovely Jennifer Rubin (one of my first actress crushes thanks to Nightmare 3) was on screen.

The problem with the movie is that it takes a sub-genre that's mostly known for its relative playfulness (the slasher) and uses its motifs for a plot about suicide, which isn't so fun. I dig the mystery/twist angle that (spoiler for 25 year old movie ahead) everything in the movie has been the result of psychosis and medication, and not the ghost/supernatural presence of a long-dead cult leader - but that really undermines the hook of the movie, and makes you realize in its final moments that everything you have witnessed has been a series of suicides brought on by (intentionally) mixed up prescription pills. That's a huge bummer of a reveal, especially when you consider that the victims all had real problems and were trying to get help, but got caught in the middle of their evil doctor's plan that was instigated by the arrival of a new patient who survives.

Of course, one could look at Nightmare on Elm St 3 the same way - Kristen shows up and people start dying, and she's one of the few to live. But we learn that the kids already knew about Freddy and thus we can assume he would have gotten to them eventually, which isn't the case here. The villain was able to use the idea that the cult dude was somehow doing this stuff, but the other patients wouldn't even have known he existed unless Rubin's character hadn't joined the group. So once you realize this, it makes it hard to get into the movie that's spent the previous hour building up the idea of a new horror icon that blends Freddy Krueger with Jim Jones (hey, more suicide!). I mean, maybe if it was a hardcore serious horror film, they could pull it off - but when you have Dean Cameron mugging in every other scene, and even occasional one-liners from Richard Lynch (as the cult guy), it's hard to really take it serious.

So it's a tonal misfire, in other words - but there's still some merit to the proceedings. Again, there's a great cast here, and watching them bounce off each other during the therapy scenes is entertaining every time. There's a sequence where two of the patients fall (jump) into a giant turbine fan which causes blood to spray out of all the vents and air ducts - a delightfully icky setpiece that you can enjoy a lot more nowadays since you know it was real fake blood being sprayed on all of the actors (including Rubin), not a bunch of pixels. Lynch's burn makeup (a 5 hour process, according to the bonus features) is also pretty spectacular - again, it's clear they were trying to launch a new Freddy icon (Lynch also says he was signed on for 2 sequels), but I'm not sure how a franchise would work considering he's basically a figment of everyone's imagination.

It's also got a nice turn from Bruce Abbott, in the Craig Wasson role as the group's handsome shrink. I never understood why Abbott didn't become a bigger star - he's got a very charming everyman presence, something that pays off here as he's pretty much the only normal guy in the movie. But he briefly gets in on the fun, during a weird hallucination scene where he imagines himself repeatedly running over his boss, and also gets to enjoy the longest rooftop rescue in history (seriously, he's hanging onto Rubin - with one hand! - for like 3 minutes). His boss is played by Harris Yulin, another solid character and one you don't often see in junky horror movies (one of his few others is My Soul To Take!), so again, the cast alone is enough to warrant a view.

All of the bonus features here are ported over from their 2011 DVD release; there's a pretty fun commentary with Andrew Fleming, who is proud but aware of the flaws in his first movie and thus has just the right attitude about it (he also shares a hilarious anecdote about being so young/broke when he took the meeting for the movie that his mother drove him to FOX and waited outside - heh). Then there's a then-new collection of interviews with Cameron, Rubin, Abbott, and Lynch (not long before he died), where they go through the usual paces of such things (except for Lynch, who is seemingly pissed off about something and seems like 2 seconds away from completely freaking out). The rest of the stuff is vintage EPK and behind the scenes material, as well as the original ending which drags on forever and sets up the sequel that never came to pass, so it was a pretty good call on their part to cut it.

This is the film's first release on Blu-ray, and it's paired with Visiting Hours, the hospital-based sorta-slasher with Michael Ironside. I have no desire to revisit that one any time soon, but for what it's worth, it DOES have some new interviews, including one with screenwriter Brian Taggart, so if you're a fan of that film you can justify the upgrade for sure. Some Scream releases are must-own sets even if you're not a big fan of the movie (I've held on to The Burning and Night Of The Comet), but this release is definitely a fans-only affair. However, I'm glad I gave Bad Dreams another chance; it's not great, but it's one of the better Freddy cash-ins, and given that it came out in 1988, when the Nightmare series officially reached parody level (Miami Vice Freddy!), it's admirably restrained in comparison.

What say you?


The Ganzfeld Haunting (2014)

FEBRUARY 11, 2014


Before Moviepass changed their program, it was pretty easy to find surprise theatrical releases like The Ganzfeld Haunting through their service; their website would list all currently playing movies in your area, sorted by popularity - you just had to go to the last page and work your way back to find these "gems". And of course, by "gems" I mean they were almost all awful (Lost Coast Tapes and Amber Alert were found this way, if memory serves), so it hasn't exactly been a big loss that the app ONLY shows you the popular movies now. To find stuff like this, you gotta go theater by theater and look, which is more trouble than it's worth. But I was stumbling around on the theater's website for a different reason, and came across this thing - a theatrical horror movie starring Billy Zane, Dominic Purcell, and the gorgeous Taylor Cole? SIGN ME UP!

And as a bonus, it actually sounded kind of interesting. In fact, I'll paste the synopsis I read below:

"Trying to prove the possibility of psychic communication, a group of hard-partying psychology students mistakenly unearth a grisly series of murders from their forgotten youth. As ghosts from the past become increasingly violent, the students must solve a 20-year-old crime before they are driven insane - or become murder victims themselves."

Sounds pretty good, right? I figured Zane (or Purcell) played their professor or something, and it would have some of the cool scientific-based horror that I enjoyed in The Stone Tapes or The Apparition (neither of which are perfect movies, mind you - but belong to a sub-genre I wish had more entries). Alas, while that plot synopsis wasn't exactly WRONG, the movie focuses almost exclusively on the "hard partying psych students" aspect - I would estimate nearly half of the film is nothing but one of the four snorting coke, drinking hard liquor from a bottle, smoking a joint, or "letting themselves go", i.e. fooling around at random with one of their fellow students (including a brief lesbian encounter between Cole and Rumer Willis). Maybe another 10% or so is just them yelling at each other. The epilogue, where Purcell finally shows up (as a cop, along with Hoyt McCallany), adds another 5 minutes or so where they just wander around the house saying "Look", pointing at a drug or a bloody weapon, and muttering "What the fuck...".

I'm not going to do the math, but that doesn't leave a hell of a lot of the 85 minute movie for anything involving "increasingly violent ghosts", and no one seems particularly interested in solving any crime (including the cops!). Willis literally spends the entire movie either snorting coke or wandering in and out of the room where the others are, never taking an active role in the experiment or even SAYING anything much of value beyond "What the fuck was that?" or similarly brief, often profane outbursts (what little enjoyment I got out of the movie, besides appreciating Cole, was from imagining Rumer's dad having to sit through this fucking thing). As for the backstory that provides the "mystery", it's completely incoherent - Cole realizes that she is one of the little girls seen in the fragmented flashbacks that pop up whenever they try the experiment (which is a real life theory involving projecting thoughts into another person), but it's not until the end credits that it becomes perfectly clear that all FOUR of them knew each other as children and were witnesses (I guess?) to a murder committed by Billy Zane.

I actually felt bad for Zane. The guy co-starred in one of the biggest films of all time, and both of his co-stars are currently starring in Oscar fare (Leo's being more successful than Kate's) while he shows up in awful horror movies that get single screen releases a week before they hit Blu-ray. His character is a total cipher; he takes home movies (molestation might be an issue, it's too jumbled to know for sure), says nonsensical things while looking out of a window, and plays War with one of his daughters. He's not really in any full SCENES, just scattered shots, and I don't even think his character was given a name. I mean, every single person on screen in this thing deserves better, but Zane in particular could really use a hug for his trouble.

However, it's possible that he was in it more originally. I mean, I'm not surprised that his role was brief, because that's how these things go - a few names are used to get the movie sold, but their screentime is brief. It's just the WAY his role plays out leads me to think that there was more to it; the same way you could tell Donald Pleasence's screentime had clearly been chopped up/reduced in the theatrical version of Halloween 6. And I thought this long before the end credits popped up and listed not one, not two, not even three, but FOUR editors! I read a lot of credits (it's my job!) and I swear, I have never once seen a film with more than 3 credited editors (not counting assistants and such), and the ones I have tend to be giant blockbusters, not random low budget horror films. It also starts in a very jarring manner; the four of them arrive at the house to start an experiment we know almost nothing about (and never really learn) and almost instantly start bickering and talking as if we had already known these people for 20 minutes. There's also a timestamp motif (the movie takes place over 24 hrs) that starts off telling us every hour (6 am, 7 am, 8 am), and then stops until 1 am - another sign of a jumbled up, re-edited mess.

And it's a shame, because there IS a good movie to be made from this concept. They are supposed to go to a neutral place to ensure that any flashes or images they get won't be of their own memories of the place, and they fuck that up (Cole's character says her family owns the house but she has supposedly never been there), but I can buy that contrivance (the fact that they have apparently ALL been there and were friends as kids is too ridiculous to even begin to critique, however) if it was serving a scientific-based approach to the usual "long buried memories of a tragedy resurface" plot. The ghost element is rather interesting too; the girl appears more or less in the same spot and doing the same thing every time, which obviously limits its use but is kind of cool in its own way (I'm sure it's not the first example of a ghost being stuck in a loop of sorts, but it's certainly not OVERused), though it's pretty benevolent - why couldn't Zane's ghost be around as well? Or is he even dead? Ah, who knows.

Hilariously, nearly all of the problems were the same ones I had with The Traveler, which was also directed by Michael Oblowitz (something I just learned 5 seconds ago). Like that movie, which also featured an actor who is REALLY slumming it (Zane here, Val Kilmer there), the plot was obtuse and repetitive, the ending was baffling (one of the four just wanders out of the movie, I guess), and it featured horribly misguided music choices (some angry loud guitar stuff in Traveler; here we get some Skrillex type shit performed by someone who obviously hates humanity). At first I thought maybe this was one of those deals where a filmmaker got a movie taken away from him by producers and would give him the benefit of the doubt, but when he has two different films that suffer from the exact same problems, I have no choice but to believe that maybe he's just not a very good filmmaker (he's also behind The Foreigner, one of the worst Seagal films I've seen, which is saying something). I won't forget his name again - it will serve as a warning that not even Moviepass should be paying to see this guy's nonsense.

What say you?

P.S. The movie got a little bit of press last week when Corey Feldman inexplicably showed up at the premiere pretending to be a journalist, hoping to get mock interviews with Zane and Willis for some online TV show he has. But neither of them showed up. That anecdote is far more interesting and entertaining than the movie, I assure you.


Lover's Lane (2000)

FEBRUARY 8, 2014


Post-Scream (or, more truthfully, post-I Know What You Did Last Summer), the slasher movie was as hot as it was in the early 80s, and we were treated to several over the next couple years until it died out again. But there was no such thing as "VOD" back then, so a movie either played theatrically (Urban Legend, the sequels to the above, the "back to basics" H20, etc), or it went direct to VHS (!) and/or DVD and was more or less lost. Such is the case with Lover's Lane, which would probably remain obscure if not for Anna Faris, who plays a cheerleader (!) and shot this thing before becoming much more famous the following year parodying such films in Scary Movie.

And that's what makes the film are the more interesting - it's actually the most straightforward of the bunch. I Know... was played less "winky" than Scream and Urban Legend, but it still had some of Kevin Williamson's hyper-aware dialogue. So it's amusing to see a Scary Movie star earn her chops by appearing in the only one that wasn't very funny to begin with - there are a couple of hilariously bad lines*, but otherwise it thankfully acts as if the post-modern elements of Scream had never existed. That sort of stuff dated poorly (even Scream - a classic - hasn't aged perfectly), so it's better in the long run to just take it seriously.

However, it DOES have a heavy Scream influence in pretty much every other aspect of the movie, in that the backstory involves our heroine's dead mother, who was believed to be having an affair with the father of one of the other characters. Also (spoiler for 15 year old movie ahead!) there are multiple killers, and while it's not too surprising who they are, I WAS impressed at their attempt to distract us away from the obvious. See, one of the killers is seen in a car with a date, and claims to hear a noise. Later, two of the protagonists play a prank and scare the others, and it's fresh in our minds when two other characters run over, screaming about a killer. At first the others think it's another joke, but then the date runs over, covered in blood, and dies. Everyone screams and the slasher carnage begins, and no one thinks twice about the fact that we never saw the other body. Good trick.

Another spoiler ahead!

It also, somewhat hilariously, actually has the escaped mental patient as a real antagonist. You've seen this scenario in a bunch of movies (My Bloody Valentine and Prom Night come to mind); everyone thinks the killer is the urban legend character they've been afraid of, who has escaped or is unaccounted for in some way, so the real killer can hide in plain sight. Usually it ends up being explained away before the real killer is identified; a cop will explain to the sheriff that their suspect has been caught (or in Harry Warden's case, died years before) and then the real threat will be exposed. But here, in addition to the two killers using his notoriety for their own deeds, the actual escaped mental patient shows up and tries to kill our heroes! It's kind of genius in its own stupid way.

It's just a shame that these inspired ideas weren't being used in a better overall movie. It's serviceable, but the complicated motive requires way too much exposition (upon finding his wife's body in the film's opening flashback, a man is comforted by his brother, who rattles off a bunch of backstory, awkwardly, which tips you off to the modern day killer's identity before he/she even appears!), and such things continue throughout the movie. The heroine (a lovely actress named Erin J. Dean who appeared in several things before this but seemingly gave up the business after)randomly explains the other characters' relations to each other to Faris for no real reason, and the parents of both protagonists repeatedly tell each other things that the other probably knows.

Worse, it takes a while for the killer to really get going, and the kills aren't exciting or interesting enough to make up for the wait (not that you can see them clearly anyway - the full frame DVD is very dark). The most creative bit actually comes from the male hero, who uses a stove, a box of matches, and some tape to rig up a makeshift bomb that will go off once the killer bursts through a door and inexplicably shuts it behind him (the door strikes the match as it slides across the floor). Not sure why he knew how to do this in the first place, let alone thought of it as he was in immediate danger of being stabbed with the hook, but at least he was putting more effort into things than the killer. Speaking of which, his costume also blows; yet another late 90s slasher that settles for a hood, though at least he throws on a ski mask as well to add a touch of Prom Night to the proceedings (not the best movie to honor, really, but hey, it's well intentioned).

As for Faris, it's not much of a surprise she found more fame than her co-stars (the only other one I recognized was Sarah Lancaster, who was Chuck's sister on Chuck), playing the rare cheerleader in a slasher who is actually pretty nice and personable instead of a complete bitch (Lancaster covers that ground). It's pretty much a four piece for the majority of the slasher stuff - the two heroes, the requisite dork, and Faris - and she repeatedly becomes the best part of any scene where they're all arguing or running around trying not to get killed. She even flashes the nerd (we don't see it, it's another Scream homage I guess) to distract him when the heroine has to snap his broken leg back into place, which works for pulling off a bandaid (I usually recall a memory of prurient interest) but probably not so much for impromptu leg surgery.

Basically, it's worth a look if you're a slasher completist like myself, but otherwise you shouldn't be surprised that it's remained obscure. I found it at my local CD/movie shop during a Buy 2 Get 1 on used DVDs, and it was worth about that much effort; I've already put it out in my building's "Free" pile (need to make room for the baby - can't be keeping so many junk DVDs I'm never going to watch again). Hopefully whatever curious neighbor I never talk to that notices it when they go down to do their laundry (the cover even has a Ghostface type image for extra eye-catching action) will find more to love!

What say you?

*When the two heroes find a person laying in the road, the male asks "Who is it?" and the girl replies "I don't know! Everyone we know is dead!". It's bliss.


HMAD Screening: CHILD'S PLAY 2

Those who came to last month's HMAD screening of The Exorcist III were treated to a pretty great Q&A with Brad Dourif, and it wouldn't have been possible without the assistance of Don Mancini, who has written just about every single thing Dourif has ever said as Chucky the killer doll. I knew they obviously kept in touch, so he was the one who connected us - something that might not have happened if the Child's Play's weren't an anomaly compared to the other big horror franchises. As you're probably aware, it's pretty rare for one writer to stick around for an entire series, and it's even more impressive when you consider that the films have each had their own unique flavor and run the gamut from straight horror to camp comedy.

Incidentally, I've been planning on doing one of the Child's Play sequels for a while now; we did the first film a couple years back and it was one of the biggest crowds I've had. And I figure it makes no sense to skip around*, so while I was talking to Don about getting Brad out, I mentioned my desire to show Child's Play 2, and he was up for it! Thus, I'm happy to announce that on February 22nd we will be showing the film in glorious 35mm! This is actually the only one of the first five films I have yet to watch in a proper theater (I've seen it on 16mm, however!), so I'm stoked to check it off on my "35mm Bucket List" (sadly, Curse of Chucky, the surprisingly great newest entry, was basically released direct to disc and thus only has digital versions available for theatrical exhibition at this time). And it's got a ton of kills and the awesome finale in the Good Guy factory, so it should make for a stellar midnight screening!

As a bonus, Mr. Mancini will be on hand for pre-movie Q&A, and he's bringing director John Lafia along with him (we're working on a cast member or two to sweeten the deal)! Lafia will be one of the few directors we've gotten to have for a HMAD show, so I'm pretty stoked. And since Don has been involved with every entry in the series (in addition to writing them all, he also directed the last two installments), he should have a ton of great stories and be able to answer any question you or I throw at him (like: how did Chucky come back to life in Seed?). Plus, as always I'll have some DVDs to give out for easy trivia questions, and you get the pleasure of the cheapest concessions in town. The New Beverly is located at 7165 Beverly Blvd in Los Angeles (90036), just two blocks west of La Brea. Tickets are a mere 8 bucks and can be bought at the door (cash or card) or in advance at BrownPaperTickets. It all goes down at 11:59pm on Saturday, February 22nd - I'll see you there!

A midnight show is more fun when the place is packed with fans, so please spread the word! The great Jacopo Tenani designed a great poster for the event - no sense restricting it to just this one site! Feel free to post it on your own blogs/Facebook/Twitter/etc - just be sure to credit him! Much appreciated!!!

*I know some folks have asked about Bride of Chucky, which would indeed be awesome to show - but unfortunately the 35mm prints were destroyed in the Universal fire a few years back. Hopefully they'll strike another someday.


Blu-Ray Review: Witchboard (1987)

FEBRUARY 4, 2014


A few years back, Kevin Tenney came to the New Beverly with Witchboard and told the audience not to hold their breath for a new special edition due to the usual rights issues that seem to plague all of our favorite 80s horror movies at one point or another. Luckily, whatever the problem was, it's been worked out - Scream Factory has put together a fine release for the film (along with Tenney's more popular, but in my opinion inferior, Night of the Demons), offering a decent transfer and a plethora of supplements new and old. It will take you about 8 hours to go through everything on here, which is pretty damn good for a little indie movie that was originally only released on 15 screens.

As I explained in my old review, the movie isn't quite as good as I remembered from my viewings as a kid. But in a way I'm kind of impressed that I liked it so much then - the "problem" with the movie is that it goes long stretches without anything really scary happening. There are only 3 deaths in the 95 minute film, and apart from one quick nightmare scene no physical villain like Freddy - I wonder how it held my interest as a 7 or 8 year old used to seeing the faster paced Elm St and Friday the 13th films. In its place, we actually get a surplus of character development, and it's the rather rare horror film that focuses on the friendship between two men instead of the females. Our heroine (Tawny Kitaen) has become obsessed and possibly possessed by the titular witchboard (the original name for a Ouija), so it's up to her current boyfriend (Todd Allen) and her ex (Stephen Nichols) to figure out who exactly has taken control and how to stop it before the presence causes the death of any more of the film's supporting cast (including Kathleen Wilhoite as a medium who gets impaled on a sundial - causing a lifelong fear in me).

But it's not a typical team up - the two men used to be best friends before Kitaen came between them. So you have an interesting dynamic at play; Allen is the blue-collar guy, but kind of a dick. Nichols looks like a William Zabka cosplayer, but he's actually the one trying to help Kitaen and convince Allen that something's wrong - essentially giving you two male heroes that you want to win, making it actually kind of sad when one of them dies (a bit earlier than you might expect). So it works not only as a "solving a mystery" type, but as a bit of a male bonding movie too, something that you don't see in horror movies all that often. It actually borders on homoerotic territory at times (that motel scene in particular - they seriously look like they're about to embrace at one point), but it's certainly more interesting than the usual approach, which would be to have the ex be a complete dick to everyone and for us to cheer when he got his comeuppance.

Speaking of the mystery, this movie reminded me of how much technology has "ruined" horror movies. The two guys need to dig up old newspapers, so they drive a few hours to Big Bear from Los Angeles, which is what inspired their repaired friendship. And they need to look through phone books and hunt around in a cemetery looking for information on how the ghost's parents died - all of this stuff would just take place via a Google search nowadays, costing us the built-in excuse for their bonding and a legit scare scene where they're poking around the graveyard. Also, when Allen finds out something dreadful and needs to get back to Kitaen right away, he has to haul ass - not text her like he would now (or, if he didn't, we'd be complaining about the plot hole). Nowadays, a filmmaker has two options: explain why the technology doesn't work ("no service!") which is hacky, or use it and be forced to come up with something else to fill that time, something that's usually extraneous (hence why so many characters Googling stuff in a library in a modern horror movie get scared by a custodian turning on their vacuum cleaner or something).

Another thing I liked that I didn't discuss last time is that it actually has a helpful Ouija scene to explain why the heroine gets so attached to it. Most movies, they just keep using it because they're idiots, I guess, but here there's a silly/fun bit where it helps her locate a missing ring in a pipe under the sink (which she retrieves with a toothbrush and then puts it back without rinsing it - ew), so it makes sense that she'd want to play with it again. The two ghost thing is slightly clunky (at one point Nichols has to run down a list of the film's events asking David (the good ghost) which was him and which was the bad one), mainly because we don't get to see much about Malfeitor (the bad one, if you couldn't tell from his name), but it's still an intriguing concept that keeps the focus on the board for a change, rather than merely an exposition tool like most horror films.

The movie has two sequels; I haven't seen Witchboard 2 (which Tenney wrote/directed as well) in 20 years, but W3 is rubbish and should be avoided at all costs. Still, a movie doesn't get followups without a fanbase, and those fans should be happy with Scream's release. The vintage making of and interviews are a delight; I wish Tenney had provided commentary for the former since a lot of it is silent, random footage of the production, but it's still fun to see how these things used to be put together as opposed to the corporate blandness of such things today. Some of the footage is repeated (interviews and making of share a number of sound bytes), but it's all fun to go through. The two commentaries are also a lot of fun; Tenney is on both, one with the cast which has a ton of anecdotes and ribbing, and another with two of the producers, which is more serious in tone as they discuss the various issues of making a low budget film: securing the house, pulling off ambitious shots (like the lengthy 360 shot during the seance scene), dealing with distributors, etc. This track may be an old one; I know the one with the cast is new but the one with the producers is, I believe, taken from the previous DVD release. Either way, the only frustrating thing about BOTH tracks is that they mention a deleted opening sequence that shows how David (the boy ghost) was killed, and that sequence, along with a few others that were cut (Tenney says they had enough footage for a 3 hour movie) are nowhere to be found. It's clear they were digging deep if they found the self-shot behind the scenes footage, so it's a bummer this continues Scream's strange opposition to deleted scenes.

The biggest new feature is a lengthy retrospective doc that covers the film's origins (as a script Tenney wrote for his screenwriting class at film school) to completion, featuring new interviews with most of the cast (including the three leads and Wilhoite) and several crew. I always prefer these to a collection of solo interviews, and it thankfully keeps the clips to a minimum, so you're not spending the entire time watching stuff you just saw in the film - if you have the previous release, I think this makes an upgrade worthwhile. I haven't gone through all of Demons yet (again, not really a fan), but it looks just as jam-packed as this one and again has Tenney's full cooperation, so I expect it will make fans of that film just as happy as I am with Witchboard.

What say you?


The Black Water Vampire (2014)

FEBRUARY 3, 2014


Someone recently pointed out how few reviews there have been on the site as of late, and while I wish it wasn't the case, there's a pretty good reason for it - most of what I watch is the same sort of rubbish that I had gotten fed up with when I was still doing the site every day. Netflix assigns me about 10 movies a month (2 or 3 a week) and they're almost always bad; the sort of movie that hovers just above the "Crap" tag (though some would have earned it) and leaves me with nothing to say because it doesn't have a single original idea or interesting character worth mentioning (which is a bummer, because part of the tagging process involves describing the main characters - they're often blank slates). So with so much of my horror viewing time spent on junk like that, it leaves precious little for finding something with a little more merit, which is why I've pretty much only been reviewing Shout Factory releases and theatrical excursions. But I'm making an exception for The Black Water Vampire, because this is a truly special case.

Now, I know I've been vocal about my weariness re: the recent excess of found footage movies, and this belongs in that genre. However, this wasn't really an issue - it actually served the plot and didn't involve an abandoned hospital like many other recent ones. Instead it took place in the woods, focusing on a group of documentary filmmakers who are investigating a series of murders when they get lost, are woken up by strange noises, discover strange symbols in the woods, and eventually one of their group vanishes without a trace. Sound familiar?

Hilariously, the movie was almost over before I realized that writer/director Evan Tramel even lifted 75% of the damn INITIALS of The Blair Witch Project; their TBWP is his TBWV. Until that point, I was mostly just floored at how many things he was taking almost verbatim from that classic film - the sound guy is the last to be picked up, he doesn't like being filmed, they interview locals before setting off into the woods, they argue about a map, they express confusion as to how to put the tent together... there's even a bit where SOMETHING outside begins pushing against their tent! I mean, nearly every found footage movie is referred to as a Blair Witch ripoff by the lazy, but rarely is there much of a direct comparison (even Paranormal Activity gets labeled as such, but the two couldn't honestly be more different on a narrative level); fellow snowbound entry The Frankenstein Theory is one of the few that actually deserves the slam. But even that one looks innocent compared to this, which even has an apology scene by its bitchy female filmmaker, while wearing a knit cap!

Hell, I almost want to recommend it to others so you can see how shamelessly it copies from Blair (with some deviations I'll discuss in a bit). It's possible that Mr. Tramel (this is his first film) doesn't understand the difference between living up to certain expectations in a genre and flat out ripping them off. For example: the virginal "Final Girl" in a slasher movie more or less comes from Halloween (Black Christmas may be an earlier slasher, but since half of it revolves around the main female character's possible abortion, it's clear her virgin days are behind her), but it's just sort of expected and accepted in the ones that follow - unless the film also happens to take place on Halloween and the killer turns out to be her brother, I don't get worked up about the "theft". So it's not like "Oh it's a Blair Witch ripoff because it's about a documentary team in the woods", or that their footage was found a year later - it's copying entire scenes with nearly laughable frequency; by the time the sound guy got wet crossing a stream I had given up keeping score. Paying homage is one thing, but when you can practically guess the next scene because that's what happened in another movie, there's a problem.

So it's probably not much of a surprise that the best parts are the rare ones where Tramel cuts the Blair-bilical cord and tries his own thing (or at least rips off something else - there's a hilariously terrible copy of the Freddy Krueger nursery rhyme). Bill Oberst Jr shows up in the film's highlight, playing the accused murderer in a single scene that unfolds almost entirely in one take and momentarily made me hopeful that the movie would rise above its shameless recycling and make something memorable. Obviously he can't be the killer (or at least, not the ONLY one) if he's behind bars, because something's gotta make the movie exciting, but he's creepy enough to understand why he's the one being pegged for it all. And in the biggest departure from BWP, we actually DO see the titular monster, a bat-like vampire (sort of like the ones in From Dusk Til Dawn, but all black), which is thankfully a practical creation for the most part (one shot looked a little CGI-y, but it might just be the result of a standard def download version - he's definitely flesh/blood when it matters, at least), which paves the way for an ending that (sigh) will remind you of a certain genre classic (can't say which without spoiling, but it's currently being remade!), but is at least a better way to end one of these things than "and they all died" (though it does present a plot hole - how'd the footage get found, per the movie's introduction, if this is where the camera ended up?).

To be fair, if you're going to rip off a found footage type flick, you can't pick a better target than Blair - it's the closest thing to a perfect version of this kind of movie you can ask for, and thus it SHOULD be the one others aspire to be - just like Halloween for slashers and Night of the Living Dead (or Dawn) for zombie movies. But there's gotta be a healthier balance between their ideas and your own, and sadly Mr. Tramel leaned too heavily on the former. I've seen worse FF films, certainly - but the only way I could see myself enjoying this one is to completely forget about the best.

What say you?


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