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DVD SAVANT
Savant PAL Region 2 Guest Reviews:

The Entrance
and
The Passage

Separate releases
reviewed by Lee Broughton

The revitalized horror-thriller genre has grown increasingly violent and unsettling in recent years, with franchises like the Saw and Hostel series leading the charge to expose modern mainstream cinema audiences to the kind of transgressive scenarios originally found within marginal exploitation flicks from the 1970s. DNC Entertainment have released two recent genre entries that draw thematic influences from this new wave of exploitation fare. Interestingly, the directors of both films appear to have consciously elected to show little in the way of gore and general unpleasantness onscreen, instead leaving much to the viewer's imagination. That said, the shows reviewed here still feature a number of highly disturbing moments. The Entrance details the activities of an ancient demon who goes about punishing sinners and tempting the innocent in present day North America while The Passage concerns itself with the trouble that two Western male tourists in Morocco find themselves in when they catch the eye of a pretty local girl.


The Entrance
DNC Entertainment
2006 / Colour / 1:77 anamorphic widescreen / 77 m.
Starring Sarah-Jane Redmond, Michael Eklund, Ron Sauve, Jerry Wasserman, Frank Cassini, Colin Cunningham, Bernard Cuffling, Hiro Kanagawa, C. Ernst Harth, Daryl Bennett
Cinematography Larry Lynn
Production Designer Miho Yamamoto
Film Editors Daryl Bennett and Damon Vignale
Original Music Daryl Bennett
Written by Damon Vignale
Produced by Damon Vignale and Andrew Hamilton
Directed by Damon Vignale

Synopsis:

Detective Porhowski's (Sarah-Jane Redmond) night shift at the local precinct is disturbed when a jittery drug-dealer, Ryan James (Michael Eklund), demands that she interviews him. James explains that, earlier the same evening, he woke up in an underground car park where he and four other men were forced to play games upon which their very survival depended. With the losers being sacrificed to some kind of supernatural entity, James reckons that he got lucky when a weird janitor (Ron Sauve) helped him to escape. However, there was a condition attached to James's release: another person must take his place in the games and it seems that Porhowski has been selected as the ideal candidate.

The Entrance is touted as being the first instalment in a trilogy and that fact might explain why the film features narrative strands that don't appear to be properly resolved and narrative interludes that add little to the film's main story arc. A front card, along with scratchy black and white film footage that plays throughout the opening credits, reveals that a 17th century exorcist documented a case of demonic possession that featured the same supernatural entity that is now plaguing Porhowski and James in the 21st century. Sporadic Internet searches by a uniformed officer reveal little additional information about the exorcist but a number of further clips of him in action are presented, perhaps suggesting that he (or the reams of notes that he is seen furiously scribbling) has a more significant part to play in chapters two and three of the trilogy? Likewise, while there are decent enough build-ups to the various sinners losing their games and being selected for punishment, little in the way of actual punishment is effectively seen. Are the losers transported to some kind of limbo or hell world that will be revealed in parts two and three of the trilogy or does their short-lived encounter with a ferocious but barely seen supernatural beast represent the full scale of their punishment?

The characters selected for punishment here are a particularly despicable bunch who are responsible for a number of heinous crimes. When each one loses his particular game, an old film projector comes to life and screens a black and white representation of their sins. Thankfully, most of the visual aspects of this sin footage plays off camera but what can be heard of the audio tracks remains disturbing and upsetting. So much so that the brevity of the punishment meted out here somehow feels too humane to be the work of a demon and some viewers will no doubt feel somewhat short-changed by this aspect of the show. The biggest stumbling block for me was the employment of the projector, which badly affects the film's ability to suspend disbelief. The idea that a demon who possesses formidable supernatural powers would use a piece of archaic human technology in order to get its point across is a tough idea to sell. The employment of some kind of psychically enforced communal flashback or a trip through time to the event itself might have been more plausible narrative devices. That said, the sudden appearance of some unforeseen sin footage towards the end of the show neatly works to push Porhowski closer to her breaking point.

Although The Entrance doesn't fully work at a narrative level, it remains a slickly assembled show that does have some interesting things going for it. It sports a dark look that is impressive in its consistency: shot in Vancouver, the film's dark hue and general aesthetic is a little reminiscent of the X-Files TV show. There's some decent cinematography on display too and the editing isn't bad either: early on, a particularly elliptical approach to editing and narrative effectively communicates the state of extreme confusion and fear that James is in when we first encounter him. These early scenes are enhanced by some feverish close-ups and panicked point-of-view shots that are cut together in an extremely frenetic manner. The film also features a number of thoroughly effective boo! moments that are invariably generated by some clever soundtrack work. And the plot does possess a couple of nicely timed and unexpected twists that work to bring a degree of depth to the show's narrative. The bizarrely gentle and seemingly un-taxing nature of the games that James and company are forced to play (musical chairs, bingo and five-card stud) appear to be purposefully perverse inversions of the more extreme bits of business that are routinely encountered in the Saw films.

Another plus is the decent quality of the acting found here. The strange (possessed) janitor who releases James and subsequently welcomes Porhowski to the underground car park has a touch of Angus Scrimm's Tall Man from Phantasm about him. Sarah-Jane Redmond is reasonably convincing as the jaded but dedicated female detective and she does some decent work when Porhowski finds herself at the centre of a moral dilemma following the demon's revelation that a link exists between her and one of the condemned sinners. Ultimately, Michael Eklund steals the show as the totally wired James. James's act of selling his supernatural story to Porhowski in the interview room is a device that in turn acts to sell the film to the viewer and Eklund does his level best to make his retelling of his strange experiences believable. But while it's clear that director Damon Vignale and his team put a lot of thought and effort into bringing this project to life, the overriding impression left by The Entrance is that it would have worked much better in a shorter form: the show could easily have accommodated some trimming down and tightening up. With its extraneous content cut and its idiosyncratic enigmas beefed up, The Entrance could have fit quite neatly into a television series like Masters of Horror.


This DVD's technical specs belie the fact that The Entrance is a low budget feature. Picture and sound quality here are both excellent. As mentioned previously, the film has an impressively dark look but the show's good lighting and cinematography result in a consistently clear, sharp and detailed picture.


The Passage
DNC Entertainment
2007 / Colour / 1:77 anamorphic widescreen / 91 m.
Starring Stephen Dorff, Sarai Givaty, Neil Jackson, Khalid Benchegra, Abdel Ghani Benizza, Hayat Haigoune, Neil Fluellen, Med Maach, Nejjam Rania, Mustapha Tahtah
Cinematography Jim Denault,
Production Design Marla Altschuler
Film Editor Johnathan Del Gatto
Original Music Timothy Williams
Written by Neil Jackson
Produced by Lynette Howell and Jeremy Kipp Walker
Directed by Mark Heller

Synopsis:

In an attempt to get over a recently experienced personal tragedy a young American, Luke (Stephen Dorff), is travelling the world with his boorish British pal, Adam (Neil Jackson). During their stay in Morocco, Luke tries to engage with the local culture while Adam seeks out more immediate and hedonistic pleasures. When Luke is befriended by an attractive bi-lingual Moroccan girl, Zahra (Sarai Givaty), he accepts her offer to take him to a remote mountain region that is of cultural and aesthetic interest. Adam figures that Luke and Zahra need some time alone together and so arrangements are made for him to meet up with the pair at a later date. However, when Luke and Zahra arrive at their desolate destination circumstances find them seeking refuge from the elements in a nearby village. Offered the use of an empty house, the pair's troubles really begin when they discover that the house contains a hidden tunnel.

The Passage is a show that features some quite unexpected plot twists and, as such, it is best viewed without too much prior knowledge of its narrative content. Consequently, I will try to keep this review relatively short.

The Passage is a decently acted and assembled show that is hard to pigeonhole. While it isn't strictly an exercise in naturalistic film-making in the style of, say, Michael Winterbottom's In This World, the film does feature sections that boast an almost documentary-like quality that manages to capture a flavour of the customs and culture found in some of the film's shooting locations. Cinematographer Jim Denault's pleasing camerawork also presents some of Morocco's remote mountainous countryside in a suitably spectacular and painterly fashion. But while the film's cinematography does boast art-house-ish leanings, The Passage is first and foremost a horror-thriller. And, just as Robert Fuest did with the seminal And Soon the Darkness, director Mark Heller gets great play out of his protagonists' limited understanding of their holiday location's domestic language. Scenarios filled with a sense of confusion, extreme isolation and apprehension arise when Luke and Adam find themselves in panicky situations where an understanding of the local dialect would be a major asset.

The passage of the film's title is a series of claustrophobic and unlit passageways-cum-tunnels: Luke and Zahra discover the entrance to these maze-like tunnels hidden in the bathroom of the house where they seek refuge. There's some good suspense generated when the pair try to navigate the passageways using first candles and then both the flashbulb and the viewing screen light found on Luke's camera. Later on, Adam is forced to travel the same tunnels using a cigarette lighter that is running low on fuel. In both cases, the intermittent availability of a very temporary light source allows Heller to cook up some really effective boo! moments. Ultimately, having limited light sources means that our three novice tunnel travellers move through the maze at a snail's pace but unforeseen developments demand that they must try to move faster. The steadily growing sense of tension, frustration, panic and fear that the trio experience leads into a denouement that is as disturbing and as upsetting as they come.

Whilst the film's narrative initially seems to depict a series of clashes between two different cultures and appears to have a way too obvious political subtext, a clever coda disrupts such readings and reveals the reality of the situation that Luke, Adam and Zahra find themselves in. (... Major spoiler begins here and runs to the end of the paragraph.) First off, what appears to be a Wicker Man-like conspiracy that involves a whole community actually turns out to be the work of just a few highly manipulative local individuals. And those individuals themselves are driven only by their avaricious desire to operate within an extremely callous sector of international capitalism. The system of demand and supply that encourages their nefarious deeds is ultimately stimulated and sanctioned by members of elite Western society. If you're still looking for a more explicit indication of just what the film is about (... Really major spoiler follows), try imagining Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things reworked for the Hostel generation.


The Passage is a low-ish budget production shot on location but it looks pretty good technically. Some shots here are a little grainy but, given the extensive location work undertaken and the intermittent documentary-like approach employed, this is to be expected. By and large, the picture and sound quality of this presentation are both near enough excellent. There are a lot of night-time scenes and scenes shot in dimly lit tunnels here but picture detail and clarity remain good. The show's desire to project a fairly naturalistic ambience results in the odd line of dialogue that is mumbled or seemingly placed too low in the sound mix but this doesn't represent a major problem.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Entrance rates:
Movie: Fair +
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer

The Passage rates:
Movie: Good +
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer


Packaging: Separate releases in keep cases
Reviewed: October 30, 2008

Text © Copyright 2008 Lee Broughton
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are more likely to be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.

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