A Christmas Horror Story (2015)

DECEMBER 23, 2020


I forget who talked me out of watching A Christmas Horror Story back when it first hit in 2015, but whoever it was deserves a giant lump of coal... in their face! This isn't a classic on the level of Black Christmas or Inside (i.e. must-see Christmas horror films) but it's certainly worth watching and gets more right than wrong. By structuring the film like Trick 'r Treat and letting the stories drift in and out (instead of contained chunks) it avoids the erratic pacing of most anthologies, working as an traditional single film experience, as opposed to something like Creepshow where you might hit the chapter skip if you're not in the mood for this or that story.

And all the stories are engaging in their own way; even the wraparound (featuring William Shatner as a Christmas-loving DJ) not only has its own little unfolding mystery (a tragedy at the local mall) but ends up tying into one of the tales in a surprising and kind of awesome way. Careful viewers might be able to spot which one (an actor appears in both, though in one he is not seen in closeup and is partially obscured) and then in turn figure it out, but if you're just soaking it in instead of trying to get ahead of it I'm sure it'll get past the average viewer. One problem I have with a lot of anthologies is that there's no real connection between the tales, and has a wraparound of almost no importance - this one uses the whole buffalo, and is all the better for it.

The stories are also well balanced in terms of sub-genre (though all have something supernatural) and characters: there's a standard group of horror movie teens in one, a dysfunctional family unit in another, a married couple with a mute kid in a third, and... Santa Claus? Yep, the big man himself features in one story, in which the poor sod has to battle his elves, who have turned into foul mouthed zombies. For some reason I had the idea that the movie was a comedic one in the vein of junk like Santa's Slay, but in reality the only real "comedy" in the movie stems from hearing elves swearing as they try to eat Santa Claus and his wife. It might not even register as funny to some people; I just revert into an 8 year old whenever I hear profanity coming from unlikely places (one of them accuses Mrs. Claus of f-ing the reindeer, which is also amusing to my warped mind).

The rest is played pretty straight, and gets surprisingly dark at times; I was not expecting to think about Tales From The Hood's "Boys Do Get Bruised" segment when I sat down to watch this film. The weakest storyline is probably the one with the teens, because it inches into found footage territory as they not only film it (it's not all POV, just a few shots) but they're also - sigh - walking around a closed up building and dealing with a ghost, which is something I am happy to never see again as long as I live. On the other hand, it actually went AGAINST a tired cliche by having a dude rebuke a girl's advances because he has a girlfriend (and the two girls are friends as well). To be fair it's the "ongoing affair that gets uncovered while they're running from a maniac" cliche that I really hate, but still! It's nice to know some of these people have standards! Also the sex is important to the plot, if you can believe it or not (the girl - possessed for the record - needs a "donor").

Also, it's set in the same town as Ginger Snaps (Bailey Downs, for the record), which is the sort of tip of the hat I always like. It doesn't mean anything to the plot; it's just a fun in-joke for those who will get it and won't distract anyone who is unaware. It's part of why I dislike the "name all the characters after directors" kind of thing - it ends up being a distraction, A. because some of those names are unusual (something like "Mayor Cronenberg!" is going to cause an eyebrow cock whether you know who David is or not) and B. you're likely to recognize some (Craven, Carpenter, Romero) and then feel left out when there's one that you don't recognize, or - if you're a bit of a snob - scoff when they throw in one that doesn't deserve to be on the same level with the others. It's best to just let the people who will get it smile, while everyone else is unaware that there was ever a joke at all.

And yes, it makes good use of the Christmas theme. The kids one not so much, but obviously the Santa story is loaded with it, the family unit is visiting an aunt for the holiday when they awaken Krampus, and the other family sneaks onto private property to get a Christmas tree and bring back something else. I noticed a few other modern Christmas ones don't really have much seasonal relevance (the newest Black Christmas goes the total opposite direction of the 2006 one, with a bare minimum of decor and a fairly crowded campus for what is supposed to be break), so it was nice to see them making the effort in that department. Moreso, it's presented with a noticeable and appreciated lack of much cynicism; even the mall element isn't stacked with anti-commercialism sentiment or whatever. Despite this year's unending stream of misery, the season still flew by for me, so I would have been bummed out if, on Christmas Eve Eve, I watched something that was seemingly made by people who hate the idea. I nearly cried yesterday when I turned the tree on, knowing it was already going to be one of the last times I did so for another year (I watched the movie on the 23rd but am writing the review on the 29th, just to clarify). Hell, today is the day my mom would traditionally take the tree down when I was a kid, and I'm feeling I just put it up!

Needless to say this will be added to the rotation. I'm slightly curious if I would be as warm to it if it was presented in the usual "chapter" structure (with Shatner presumably introducing each tale properly), and would be open to watching it that way if someone did a fan edit or something, but I suspect I'd prefer it as is. The ways the stories connect (the teen girl in the Krampus story is friends with the teens in the ghost one, who were tracking a case investigated by the man in the Christmas tree story, and so on) felt a little more natural than other anthologies that have attempted similar things, and as a result you can't really just remove one story which is often what most of these things could really use. It made it more of an "ensemble" movie as opposed to a traditional anthology one; the Love, Actually of horror?

What say you?


Hunter Hunter (2020)

DECEMBER 18, 2020


When you think of Devon Sawa and horror, you'll probably think of Final Destination or Idle Hands (if you're into deep cuts you can go with Devil's Den), i.e. fun genre movies, right? Well, don't walk into Hunter Hunter expecting anything like those - this is one of the bleakest films I've seen this year, and no I'm not forgetting things like The Lodge and The Dark and the Wicked. There are a few quick moments of levity involving some city morons who keep leaving trash around in bear country, but otherwise it starts off moody and ends on a more or less devastating climax. Merry Christmas!

Sawa stars as Joe, a fur trapper who lives way off the grid with his wife Anne (Camille Sullivan) and daughter Renee (Summer H. Howell), the latter of whom is starting to learn the family trade while mom deals with things like collecting water and bringing in their fur to town for trade. They don't seem to be the happiest people on the planet, and business is getting slow both from a surplus of some sort (Anne is getting less than she used to for their furs) and also a wolf that is wiping out the game. Having tired of it, Joe decides to go trap and kill the wolf for however long it takes, leaving the two women alone and without an easy way to contact him (just some finnicky walkie talkies - it's set sometime in the '90s). One night they hear someone crying in pain and assume it's Joe, but it's another man (Nick Stahl) who got caught in a trap.

Being that this is a genre film - and that Joe has found some bodies in the woods - it isn't really a spoiler to say that Stahl's character is dangerous, though due to his injury he has to play the part of normal unlucky guy until he is well enough to strike. So the movie generates its suspense from the "not if but when" he will reveal his true nature to Anne and Renee, and also Joe's continued absence - will he come back in time to rescue them? Has he already been killed by Stahl's character, or even one of his own traps? As a result I'm not sure if this will be a particularly rewatchable movie, since you'll already know those answers and - again - it's not exactly a big crowd-pleasing type, but I admire writer/director Shawn Linden for avoiding conventions at pretty much every turn. No matter how many movies you've seen and how accurate your guesses may be on who survives the film, I guarantee you that there's a sequence no one can see coming.

(And I say this with some irony, because I saw it at the drive-in where the murky screen was obscuring some of the action - those of you watching at home with proper calibration will be even more stunned, I suspect.)

I also appreciate that Linden didn't beat us over the head with the theme here (one that will require a bit of spoilage to discuss, if you want to skip this paragraph). The film's title is more overt than anything in the film - Stahl's character is also a hunter, but his "game" is other people, and they are offed as unceremoniously and randomly as the deer and rabbits are by Joe and his family. They kill things that weren't bothering them because that's just what they do - and then find themselves as the equally unlucky prey of another human. They didn't do anything to deserve their fate, but neither do all those fluffy bunnies, right? This is not the most unique idea anyone's ever come up with, no, but again Linden keeps it from being preachy or anything. In clumsier hands there probably would have been a monologue more or less saying what I just did, but Linden leaves it for us to parse out for ourselves.

He also leaves one character's fate up to our imagination, which is less successful. This person is caught in a trap in the woods, and when they are found they're asking their would be rescuer to tell their spouse they love them and such (prompting the standard "Tell them yourself!"), and that person does indeed go get help, but no rescue (or body retrieval) is ever shown. I just assumed I missed it because the screen was too dark, but I asked someone else who saw it on VOD and they were pretty sure there was no closure. There are only like six people in the movie, so to leave one of their fates ambiguous (and not in a climactic, "what do you think happens next?" kind of way) is a bit of a red mark against it.

The other red mark is another spoiler, but it's the kind of spoiler you have to warn people about - the dog dies. Offscreen thankfully, but still. It's such a grim movie as it is, offing the poor pooch feels like twisting the knife. Granted, it happens fairly early, almost like a warning for the bummer material to follow, but what makes it worse is that the mom (who finds it) doesn't have the heart to tell the daughter - who is clearly very lonely and wanting a more normal life - that her pal is gone. So she keeps asking to go look for him, and when she hears Stahl's pained moans she thinks it might be him at first... and we know he's dead! It's just so hard to watch!

Long story short it's a solid thriller that is a perfect fit for this horrible year of no happy endings. Obviously it won't be for everyone (I am glad I didn't take my wife, as she probably would have made us leave), but for those who can stomach the unending bleakness and occasional shots of skinned animals, you'll find it's a standout for such things, and puts Linden on the "to watch" list. It's one of those movies you will keep thinking about for a few days, and despite what I said about it not being rewatchable, I wouldn't mind checking it out again someday to at least watch the darker (meaning visually, not "dark" as in content) scenes on a screen that will allow me to know exactly what I'm looking at. And it's nice to see Stahl again, an interesting actor who has had some issues in his personal life that has left him off-screen for quite some time now. Here's hoping he's got his demons under control and can mount a proper comeback.

What say you?


The Craft (1996)

DECEMBER 17, 2020


I've had The Craft blu-ray sitting in "the pile" since it came out over a year ago, but it wasn't until I got an email the other day letting me know that my requested copy of its sequel (surnamed Legacy) was arriving soon that I had any real inclination to watch it. Like any good horror fan (and someone with a crush on Neve Campbell that started a year or two before its release and hasn't yet gone away) I watched the film a couple times when it came out on video in 1996 but don't think I've seen it since then, so in addition to wanting a refresh before diving into the followup, I was curious if it held up to my "yeah, it's OK" memory.

And it did! I recognize I'm not exactly the target audience (though on one of the bonus features they said the movie actually tested better with males than females) but I can also recognize when such films are a bit lacking even for those that can appreciate them the most. In fact it reminded me a lot of The Lost Boys, a comparison that didn't register back then (probably because I was never a big fan of that one either) but having just rewatched it a few months ago it's clear to see they both suffer from what seems like a missing beat in the story somewhere. Not as bad here as in Lost Boys, where Michael turns and what seems like the next morning Corey Haim is like "What is happening with you lately?" and prompting a split from the rest of the vamps, but it also feels like Sarah's break from the witches (Campbell as Bonnie, Rachel True as Rochelle, and leader Fairuza Balk as Nancy) doesn't have a lot of buildup. So it's one of those movies where you might not even realize you're watching the climax unless you're keeping an eye on the time remaining display, which is never a good thing.

It's also just kind of event-free, and the budget wasn't exactly tiny (15 million, which is more than most theatrical horror movies get *now*!). The film's R rating was not desired (the MPAA refused to give it the PG-13 it was designed for because they didn't want teen girls being exposed to witchcraft, lololol) but even a PG-13 film can get away with more than this offers, which is a body count of exactly one (Skeet Ulrich being knocked out a window) and a few freaky visuals in the climax. Even things that happen off-screen, like a plane crashing with Sarah's dad on it (information conveyed over the news) turn out to be tricks, so there's a strange lack of genuine threat that permeates the horror scenes, infrequent as they are.

And that'd be fine if the character development was on point, but nope, they drop the ball there too. We are given one (1) bit of information about each character's life (Nancy is white trash, Bonnie has burn scars that make her feel ugly, and Rochelle is the target of a racist mean girl played by Christine Taylor) and no followthrough on any of it. For example, Nancy's jerk stepdad has a heart attack and dies, leaving her and her mom a sizable insurance payout, seemingly making her wish of not being white trash come true, but after the girls visit their new place with fancy furniture, Balk's mom disappears from the story, so there's really no payoff for the subplot - Balk is just as crazy as she came across in her first few scenes. You could probably cut the whole insurance thing out and it wouldn't even be particularly noticeable.

Part of this vagueness is due to everything being told pretty much from Sarah's eyes, but she's also the least interesting one of the bunch and also not very developed (her dad is so fleetingly seen he makes Sid's dad in Scream seem like a primary character in comparison), so there's just not a lot to invest yourself in. Campbell and True both do nice work with what they're given (and it's very satisfying to see Rochelle take revenge on Taylor), but they're literally left on the sidelines as the film turns into a war between Sarah and Nancy. The closest thing to suspense the third act really generates is whether they will side with Nancy or break free to help Sarah, but they just disappear after a few minutes. They come back in the epilogue to show their true colors (they're jerks) but it feels like a late addition to make up for dropping them from the proceedings without a proper showdown with either Nancy or Sarah.

That said, it's an enjoyable enough time capsule-y kind of movie; looking at all the young faces (even though it's the same year as Scream, Skeet seems several years younger) and hearing the '90s alternative soundtrack. The Letters to Cleo cover of The Cars' "Dangerous Type" is still a solid jam, and having not seen it since the show premiered, I was amused to discover that Charmed wasn't content with just ripping off the movie's vibe - it even cribbed its theme song from it ("How Soon Is Now?" cover by Love Spit Love); in fact, Tunney has even said that people occasionally tell her they love the show. And it's shot in LA, a luxury no longer afforded to anyone as it became too expensive for anything but TV shows to shoot here. I also completely forgot Breckin Meyer was one of Skeet's buddies, so that was amusing.

But it also added to what I feel is the ultimate thing holding the movie back in retrospect: it's kind of the 2nd place option for a lot of things. Meyer already made one of the ultimate high school movies the year before with Clueless, so seeing him here is just a reminder of a better choice. Obviously if you want Skeet and Neve + horror, you go to Scream, and if you want to watch Robin Tunney battle the supernatural, just stick with End of Days where there are actual stakes and a more formidable villain. Hell, it's not even the scariest Fairuza Balk movie thanks to Return to Oz. Don't get me wrong, I recognize that it was a gateway horror movie for a lot of teen girls at that time (and perhaps throughout the rest of the '90s and '00s), but for me it is just as "fine" as it was in 1996. Here's hoping the sequel (which IS PG-13, something that was ironically lambasted by people who wanted it "R like the original") can dig a little deeper, somewhere, anywhere, and leave more of an impression.

What say you?


Dial Code Santa Claus (1989)

DECEMBER 15, 2020


A couple years back, one of the repertory theaters here showed Dial Code Santa Claus (aka Game Over; French: 36.15 code Père Noël), hyping it up as what sounded like a cross between Home Alone and Silent Night, Deadly Night, pitting a kid with a penchant for booby traps against a demented Santa Claus in his giant home on Christmas Eve. Obviously that is very much my thing (indeed, I went to drive-in screenings of both those films in the past week!), but for whatever reason I missed the screening, and kind of forgot all about it until it arrived at my door courtesy of Vinegar Syndrome. Perfect timing!

There isn't much more to the story than I've already suggested. The unnamed psycho is somewhat sympathetic when we meet him; he clearly has some issues but he also has a childlike appreciation of Christmas and wintertime. In his first scene he comes across a group of children having a snowball fight, and when he tries to playfully join in, they all run away because he's not one of them - it's actually kind of heartbreaking! But after a bit his true colors shine through; first he slaps a little girl who says he's not the real Santa (he's working at an outdoor plaza/mall sort of thing), and when he is rightfully fired, he decides to exact murderous revenge. Luckily for him, the boss who fired him is also the mother of a little boy who is home with his ailing grandfather, and she has arranged for a delivery of some Christmas gifts to their home. So he hitches a ride with the delivery truck, kills the driver and her house staff, and spends the night stalking the kid.

UNlucky for him, the kid is obsessed with action movies, dressing like Rambo and setting booby traps that would make "Dutch" Schaefer proud (not to mention Kevin McAllister; and yes, the director says Home Alone ripped his film off). So what should have been an easy and quick bit of revenge becomes an all night cat and mouse game, as the two go at it like some kind of demented Tom and Jerry routine. The kid's home is a literal castle, giving him plenty of places to hide, set traps, etc - not to mention explain why the killer can go long periods of time without even encountering him. There's even a giant room with a floor space bigger than most of our homes - completely hidden! He can only access it from a hidden passage in his closet or a (disabled) refrigerator in some other room off the garage.

The seemingly impossible layout of the home (aided by some not convincing model shots of the exterior) leads to one of the movie's issues - it's impossible to get a sense of the geography, which dilutes the tension whenever the two are separated. For such scenes to work you have to be able to understand the space between them, but I never could get a hang of it. The better moments are when they're actually facing off; there's a fantastic scene where the kid rigs up a grenade to a toy train that he has directed toward "Santa", only for the man to send it back - it's a terrific little setpiece. But more often than not the giant space is just an excuse to slow things down (when the kid and his grandfather go into the hidden toyroom, he just starts playing on a rockinghorse!), so there's a lot of fits and starts as opposed to a gradual ramping up of tension.

It doesn't help that "Santa" commits all his murders pretty much as soon as he arrives; the driver obviously had to go quick, but he offs the cook and housekeeper seconds later, and then (warning!) the kid's dog, so for the next hour it's just this intermittently suspenseful chase. The only real potential victim after that is Grampa, who is also written out for large chunks (he hides in a suit of armor!) instead of being in any danger, so I wish he had spread out his killing spree, and/or someone else showed up (the mother's boyfriend, for example) to give the film a little jolt maybe around the end of the second act, because it gets a bit repetitive after a while. They also leave the house for a bit (the kid can drive!) which is always a no no for me in these home invasion films. I mean, granted it came 25 years later, but if you want to watch a French film about someone being stalked inside their home on Christmas Eve, there's one that's damn near perfect, whereas this one is merely just OK.

But when it's firing on all cylinders, it's a pretty fun time. Patrick Floersheim makes for a great psycho; the use of that fake spray snow for Christmas trees to color his hair and beard white is an inspired choice, giving him a plastic-y look that adds to the creepiness. And the kid (director René Manzor's son) is also quite good; he's old enough to believably doing the things he does, but still young enough that his repeated cries of "Mommy!" and frequent teary breakdowns don't seem immature of him. I felt legit terrible for him; he was hoping to see Santa come down the chimney and believes all of the events of the movie (including his dog's death) are his fault, that the real Santa is the one chasing him to punish him for sneaking a peek. Hell, the ending almost seems to be suggesting he will end up like Billy Caldwell, before he snaps out of it, but he's still clearly traumatized.

Vinegar Syndrome's release is on 4K UHD (!), but that disc lacks any of the extras. For those you have to insert the standard blu, and honestly I'm surprised there was any room left for the film. The interview with director Manzor runs a full 90 minutes (just a few minutes shorter than the film itself), and another with the now-grown child actor is 40 minutes. Manzor's interview basically doubles as a commentary; he discusses his previous film The Passage (which starred French superstor Alain Delon, something he mentions about 900 times) and how its success both helped and hurt his ability to get this one made, the film's production, the actors, etc. It's all in French with subtitles (as is the film itself; no dub track is offered) so you have to be committed (or speak French) to get through it all, but it's a good interview all the same. The one with the kid isn't as enlightening; he naturally doesn't remember too much all that vividly and repeats himself a lot, so unless you're a die-hard fan you can probably skip it.

The rest of the features are a little more traditional in length; some behind the scenes footage (with Manzor commentary to provide context), some storyboard comparisons, the trailer, and - swoon! - a music video for the Bonnie Tyler theme song, which alas is NOT a Jim Steinman song. "Holding out for a Hero" would have worked perfectly if you ask me, but it's a specifically written song for the movie, about the kid and Christmas. And VS has offered the film in one of their deluxe slipcovers; if you follow me on Twitter you'd know I have little affinity for these things usually (I film myself recycling them just to annoy the people who buy them on eBay) but if they were all like this I'd change my tune perhaps - they're quite well done and feel like actual packaging as opposed to something disposable.

Every year on Christmas Eve I build a Lego set while watching a variety of holiday themed movies and shows, and I think this will be a good fit for the occasion. As I am obviously focused more on finding the right pieces and looking at the instructions (I'm no "Master Builder"), putting on "background" type movies is ideal, and that's what this is - there are a few scenes that demand attention, but the rest is just a lot of running back and forth or cutting to the mom saying things like "I can't get through on the phone" as she makes her way home on snowy roads. Enjoyable to be sure, but nothing I need to revisit with full attention in a year or two.

What say you?


The Dark and the Wicked (2020)

DECEMBER 11, 2020


I had a chance to see The Dark and the Wicked at the drive-in a couple months ago, but that keyword "Dark" in the title had me opt to wait until it hit Blu-ray, because I didn't want another Relic situation. So it amused me that the two films also shared a similar plot, of a woman going to take car of a sick parent and having to deal with some kind of supernatural curse that is targeting them. A double feature would be interesting, I think - the two aren't so similar that you'd be feeling like the second movie was a repeat, but it'd be interesting to see how the shared themes of feeling guilty about not taking more care of a parent in their twilight can produce very different movies.

Here, Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) are 40ish siblings who return to their parents' home to help their mother take care of their dying father, who is bedridden and seems to be on his last breaths. The mom - who is acting odd - had apparently told them not to come, which at first seems like more of a "You needn't have bothered" kind of motherly hand-waving, but it doesn't take long to realize this was actually one final attempt at parental protection, as whatever is affecting her quickly infects her adult children as well. Visions and nightmares come with increasing frequency, and as the days go by (the film takes place over a week, with "Monday", "Tuesday", etc title cards being used as a sort of countdown to let us know things will just get worse) it gets harder and harder for them to convince each other or themselves that there is something evil in the house and may claim them as it did their parents.

After the flesh and blood villains of The Strangers and The Monster, writer/director Bryan Bertino tackles something a little less tangible here - the antagonist is some kind of demon/devil, but one that is never fully explained (this isn't The Conjuring where such monsters need to be identified and then given a crappy prequel film). Too many things happen for the movie to be chalked up as a "perhaps they're just imagining things" kind of explanation - it would require at least six people to be having a shared hallucination (and not all in the same space), but there is a Shining/Session 9 type feel to the proceedings all the same, where a few key scenes could indeed be a case of someone's emotions (in this case, guilt) being manifested into traditional horror movie scares and situations.

Long story short, unless I'm missing something, this isn't an "it's up to interpretation" kind of film, but one where you're simply not going to get all of the answers. At times this is frustrating; there's a scene where Louise calls someone she had just seen the day before only for them to be confused why she was calling (as if they had NOT, in fact, been there) but there's no followup, despite the call introducing yet another mystery to the proceedings. But for the most part it works quite well as a moody/atmospheric chiller. There are a number of terrific freaky moments, including what may be the definitive "someone is chopping vegetables and gets their finger" scene in horror history (not hyperbole) and a moment that might remind you of Hereditary, but doesn't make it any less unnerving.

Also, it was interesting to watch relatively soon after The Monster (in reality a few years passed in between them but I only finally got around to Monster a couple months ago), because that film used (perhaps a few too many) flashbacks to explain the fractured relationship between its characters, but here Bertino relies on the performances and certain pauses in the lines to fill in those blanks. When Michael asks Louise if she still works at the post office, she says "Not... anymore!" in a manner that suggests she got fired for suddenly taking off to take care of her parents without much notice, and in that same conversation, a quick mention of neglecting to call Michael's daughter (her niece) for her birthday tells us that not only are they estranged from their parents, but they themselves aren't exactly close these days. What caused all this isn't explained (or important, best I can tell) but what matters is how we get the idea with a minimum of words, while claustrophobically keeping us in their present misery.

If I could wave a magic wand and fix something in the movie, it wouldn't be the unanswered questions, or an unintelligible line from the mother that the subtitles neglected to translate for me (they only use the perfectly clear end part of her line, as if whoever was doing the copy couldn't understand her either). No, it would be the digital blood that rears its (very) ugly head during just about every violent moment, taking me out of it every time. Sometimes digital blood can be done well, but there isn't much evidence to support that here, and it is a major distraction during a handful of what are otherwise very well-done moments. I know it's a low budget production and it seems like they were shooting on an actual location, so I'm sure there was some element of "we can't mess the place up or afford multiple takes" to blame for using it in the first place, but after all these years of improvements I know it can at least be done more effectively.

Speaking of doing things effectively, I must give a shoutout to Xander Berkeley (and his hair/makeup people) who pops up as a strange priest, because I didn't even fully recognize him. "Dude's got a Xander Berkeley thing going on," I thought to myself, but convinced it wasn't actually him because he looked so "off" while giving me serious "Kane from Poltergeist II" vibes. He's one of those actors who can always be counted on to make a memorable character even if there isn't much to work with, but this is the first time he legitimately disappeared in the role, as character actors traditionally do. Also, the girl from Monster showed up for an equally brief bit, and managed to produce a few chills in her brief appearance. It's got a relatively big cast for a Bertino film, but they tend to make their mark and exit after a few minutes - it's pretty much just Ireland and Abbott's show.

Whatever narrative (and VFX!) lapses the movie might have, it evens out - and then some - with its nearly undiluted sense of dread. Think of the tone of the best Ti West stuff (so, House of the Devil) and Ben Wheatley's Kill List and you'll have the right idea of what Bertino was going for here, and pretty much aced it. And I was indeed glad I waited for a home viewing; even though it has its share of distractions, I assume I would have missed out on most of its power at a drive-in with people wandering around in front of me, headlights, etc. Not to mention the sound; the score by Tom Schraeder and accompanying sound design did a lot of the heavy lifting here, and deserves a proper surround presentation as opposed to a tinny FM broadcast. The murky image probably would have made the digital blood look better though, natch.

What say you?


Blu-Ray Review: Plague Town (2008)

DECEMBER 6, 2020


"Since the audio was a bit blown out, I may rent the DVD just to hear the music again, [and] it’s also on Blu-ray, so I may check it out just to see what a Super 16 movie looks like on the format."

That's from my 2009 review of Plague Town, and if you're a longtime reader of my stuff you'd know that anything I say I'll do soon in a review is something I won't do for years, if ever. So it shouldn't be a surprise that by the time I did watch the film on Blu-ray I no longer remembered much about it at all, let alone whatever audio issues it had when I saw it. The film (slightly retitled to A Slaughter in Plague Town) has been re-released on Blu courtesy of Severin (director David Gregory's company; it was originally issued via Dark Sky), carrying over all the old supplements as well as premiering a new retrospective documentary that runs a couple minutes longer than the film itself.

It was something of a scary revisit for me, because I included the film in my book without seeing it a second time, so I was worried it didn't hold up (I've certainly been "off" in my initial assessments of many films) and people have been spending their hard earned money to get a book where I tell them to spend more hard earned money to check it out. Luckily, I agree with 2009 me: this is a solid little creeper, and in one way it actually holds up better than I remembered, since it was shot on film at a time when low budget films of this sort were always digital. As anyone who watches a lot of movies can attest, digital technology continues to improve, so older stuff shot on the format tends to look uglier and uglier as time goes on, so other movies from that year would not be very pleasing to the eye now, over a decade later (in my opinion they looked bad then too, but that's a matter of opinion). Now that even major films are also pretty much all shot digitally, it was wonderful to see a relatively modern film in glorious Super 16, presented in a solid transfer here. Also, I was amused to see comedian Erica Rhodes as the brattier of the two daughters, as I would have had no idea who she was when I first saw it (this was her first film) and usually when a comedian is in a movie they're not far removed from their stage persona, but her character is a total 180 from her standup work.

But beyond all that time capsule-y stuff it's just a really well done little chiller for the most part (the abrupt ending still irks me; I DID remember that much), proving Gregory is just as adept at making scary movies as he is making documentaries about their production (if you haven't seen Lost Soul yet, about the ill-fated 1996 Dr. Moreau, get on that). His simple tale of a family (plus one hanger-on) getting lost in the Irish countryside and running afoul of a group of murderous children doesn't skimp on the scary stuff (there's one moment that's downright hard to watch, in fact. It involves a hubcap) but is also drenched with atmosphere, and I remain impressed that they shot the film in Connecticut, not Ireland - it is a much more than adequate fascimile. Someone get David Gregory to reshoot Jason Takes Manhattan! He can pull it off! And the idea of a town trying to breed out a curse is the right kind of icky, where their intention is more or less understandable but they're going about it in the worst way possible.

And it's all even more impressive when you watch the supplements, which prove that this was a far from easy shoot. The location, while they pulled it off just fine, was not always well suited for their needs, and the budget was (as always) very tight for what they wanted. Makeup issues kept cropping up throughout the shoot due in part to inexperience and optimism on the part of the designer (there's a painful bit in the longer documentary where you see Gregory's heart just fall when he sees the first appliance being done), who in turn would get frustrated when he'd be told to apply makeup on the children by a certain time and it would be falling off their faces by the time they were finally needed on camera, 7-8 hours later. Even the older, shorter doc showcased a few of the various production issues, but the newer one (which, again, runs longer than the film) really gets into it, with plenty of candid interviews from both the original production and newly shot ones.

I should note that the new footage is mostly via Zoom and Facetime type applications (yay, Covid!), except for Gregory who utilizes his professional setup. Just about everyone from the movie is around to share their memories, but the technical qualities (which are addressed straight away via text disclaimer) can be a little rough on your ear muscles, particularly for producer Derek Curl who not only shot himself portrait mode (!) but is out of sync as well. He's a pretty fun guy to listen to, as the commentary can attest (he's possibly the MOST candid of the lot, including about his own shortcomings) so it's a bummer that I got the idea he probably would have been featured more often if the quality was better. The only ones you don't hear anything from are the Dark Sky guys, who apparently had no faith in the film and put no effort into helping it get into festivals and the like. With that in mind, I assume the team is very relieved that they were able to get the film back and give it a fresh coat of paint.

This sort of thing is why I hate that supplements are becoming extinct. I got a new genre film the other day, relatively high profile and from a studio whose name any genre fan would recognize, and the only bonus feature on the disc is a (sigh) Zoom Q&A with two of the actors, which naturally didn't explain much about this or that confusing story point or why all the digital blood in the movie looked so terrible. We can give the benefit of the doubt, sure, but this movie has actual production footage showing exactly why this or that thing in the movie that didn't quite work, so there's no reason whatsoever to just assume they're bad filmmakers. A little honesty goes a long way, and even in technically flawless movies it's always interesting (to me, anyway) to hear someone defend and explain their creative choices. As time goes on, we're less and less likely to get this glimpse behind the curtain, making me appreciate discs like this all the more.

Also Rosemary is still creepy AF and should be a common Halloween costume.

What say you?

P.S. The Severin version of the disc was a Black Friday exclusive, and I'm not sure if it will be available again. Keep an eye on their site HERE for a hopeful re-release (perhaps without the soundtrack, which was included on a separate CD). The below link is for the older release.


Castle of the Creeping Flesh (1968)

DECEMBER 1, 2020


One thing I love about outlets like Severin is that they are seemingly happy to cater to hardcore genre fans who enjoy challenging themselves, as opposed to going after big name titles that will assuredly sell better than the weirdo stuff that comprises the majority of their library (hell, Cathy's Curse is probably one of the more normal movies they've put out in the past few years!). And this year's annual crop of Black Friday selections were no exception, offering such oddities as The Theater Bizarre, Douglas Buck's grim Family Portraits, and Castle of the Creeping Flesh, which is possibly the strangest of the lot.

In fact, it's so odd it barely qualifies as horror, and it's worth noting that the original German title had a translation roughly "In the Castle of Bloody Desire", which is far more fitting. Another title was "Appointment With Lust", which also would have worked though perhaps suggests something more hardcore than what the film offers. That said, there's plenty of sex here (not all of it consensual), certainly more than anything traditionally "horror" - the bulk of that element just stems from its central location: an appropriately gothic and isolated castle that fits the scary movie bill (indeed, it was used in Bava's Baron Blood and the Nic Cage Season of the Witch). There is a mad scientist plot of sorts, but it's presented in a way that suggests it was added in later.

If that was the case, at least it's not as random as such things usually are - if I am understanding the included interview with the family of director Adrian Hoven, the heart surgery footage we see throughout the footage is actually footage of HIS heart surgery (indeed, he passed away from heart issues in 1981), which is a hell of a way to boost your production value, I must say. But the most is so horny that even these scenes are frequently interrupted by Janine Reynaud writhing in her bed or something, as if she was getting off to the idea of a guy performing open heart surgery in a dingy castle.

But at least she's enjoying herself, which isn't always the case as the movie offers a pair of rape scenes. They're not brutal, I Spit on Your Grave kind of scenes, thankfully, but instead just kind of sleazy, as both victims offer looks of momentary pleasure and, in one case, just sort of hangs out with her attacker after instead of telling their shared friends (including her fiance) what he had just done before they arrived. She even makes a joke about it! It's very odd, but that's par for the course for the film, which never seems to decide what kind of movie it is. It has all of the markings of a proper gothic horror, with a group of people arriving at a castle and discovering nefarious goings on, but once they arrive Hoven and his writers seem content to let everyone just keep hanging out and having (consensual!) sex. One guy gets out of the bed he is sharing with his lover, wanders into another room, and immediately begins having sex with the woman in that one. Later they're almost interrupted by another pal who has noticed one of their number has gone missing, but I guess he isn't too concerned because once he sees them going at it he quietly lets himself out. They can find her later, I guess.

It also offers one of the sillier subplots I can recall in one of these things. Seems the Baron's daughter was attacked by some men in the village, so he did what anyone would: set an angry bear loose in the area in hopes that it would kill the culprits (the bear would presumably ask around and make sure it was attacking the right people?). It's just a story we hear early on, long forgotten by the time one of our protagonists goes outside at night and, sure enough, runs into the bear. You'd be forgiven for forgetting the setup by the time it has a payoff, but honestly if the idea was never established at all and the guy simply got attacked by a bear out of nowhere it wouldn't exactly stand out as particularly odd in this movie.

Halfway through I started wondering if the film was an inspiration for Rocky Horror Picture Show, given its "people show up at a strange castle" plot and general randomness (and, again, horniness), a sentiment that was all but confirmed by the climax, where one of the villains takes the corpse of a loved one, climbs up a tower, and then falls to his death, just as Rocky and Frank did there - all that's missing is someone firing a laser gun. The two would make for a fantastic double feature, I suspect; three straight hours of unparalleled "No one involved is concerned with making any sense, here" entertainment. Did I mention the random voiceover that comes out of nowhere and says "KILL!" over and over?

Needless to say, if you want the movie that comes to your head when you hear the title, steer clear of this. But if you are a fan of Euro-sleaze and want something a little more memorable and outré, run don't walk to... well, the Severin site, and pick this up (if you're on a budget, a censored copy is on Prime for 99 cents). The disc doesn't have much for extras beyond the aforementioned interview with Hoven's wife and son (which is more about him than the film, though they do offer one hilarious sentiment about one of its actors: "He died a few years ago. He never got any big roles."), just a few alternate title/credit sequences with its other titles, and "different" ending that, best I can tell, simply holds on the final shot for a full minute instead of going to black. If a movie could ever use a candid historian track...

What say you?


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