DVD Stalk: Asylum, Masters of Horror, Critters, and Region Free Horror Highlights
These two films may not be your typical full-on horror films, but both Ultraviolet and Cache do have a certain air of suspense and mystery to them. The sci-fi popcorn flick, Ultraviolet, is pretty darn entertaining (if you turn your brain off), but can be horrifyingly bad at times too. Cache, however, is a "spectacular thriller" reminiscent of the work of the great Alfred Hitchcock. Both on the street this week, you'll find a few clips from each film below. Be forewarned, however, that some of these clips may contain spoilers. If you haven't seen the films, watch at your own risk.
Cache: "Trailer" | "Tape" | "Pierrot"
We start off this week's review highlights with two Amicus Productions releases from the always-excellent DVD studio Dark Sky Films. Similar to Hammer Films, in their modest budgets and genre offerings, Amicus Productions virtually owned the horror-anthology subgenre in the 1960s and '70s. While the quality of these films often varied, Amicus certainly had their fair share of hits. Among these high points in quality is the 1972 anthology film Asylum. Penned by horror fiction icon Robert Bloch, and directed by Roy Ward Baker, Asylum is notably subtler than most of the Amicus Productions films. Stuart Galbraith IV puts it best by noting that the subtle differences "...[are] most apparent in the first and overall most successful segment, "Frozen Fear," with direction and editing that maximizes the potential of the material without becoming distractingly showy, and which for the most part avoids the kind of special effects that would have been impossible with this budget. It's quite well done, quietly unsettling without being at all gory." Along with a quality audio-visual presentation, Dark Sky Films, as usual, has also added some great extra material to this disc, making it well-rounded package. The film is even tame enough for most of the family to enjoy a few scares.
Stuart also has a look at --And Now The Screaming Starts!, another Amicus Productions release from Dark Sky Films. This 1973 follow-up to Asylum may not be quite as successful a film, but it does prove interesting as an attempt by Amicus to break away from their successful horror-anthology films by crafting a feature-length period horror. In a move that would only remind people more of their close similarities to Hammer Films, the Amicus approach to --And Now The Screaming Starts! comes across more as cribbing from some of their favorite period horror films rather than using those influences to make something unique on their own. Instead of giving its characters time to develop and grow, the film rushes them from scare scene to scare scene (the filmmakers might have still been stuck in that "anthology" frame of mind). There are, however, some fine performances in the film, and even a few excellent moments sprinkled throughout, but it's not quite enough to bring the film up to the level of some of the better Amicus films. Dark Sky Films, nevertheless, manages to make --And Now The Screaming Starts! all the more interesting by providing a top-notch DVD presentation that's full of engaging extra material.
Tamara has been buzzing around the internet for quite some time. It's been talked about in chat rooms and on message boards so much that you'd think it was a big, huge blockbuster horror film from one of the major studios. Nope. It's actually just a modern take on the Carrie story that Lionsgate has done a nice job of marketing to a niche audience. Oh, yeah, and there's a really hot chick at the forefront of the picture. Scott Weinberg says that "...[Jenna Dewan] nails the title role with a visible sense of enjoyment. She's sinfully sexy, painfully pissed, and absolutely mercenary when it comes to dishing out the revenge. The gal's performance single-handedly elevates Tamara." Written by Jeffrey Reddick, Tamara's story isn't all that original, but the film's uniquely modern take on the tale is pretty entertaining. Sporting a fun commentary track with Reddick and Director Jeremy Haft, this is a solid disc worth at least a rental.
Scott Weinberg also checks in with his review of the "not great, but surprisingly watchable little horror/thriller from Canada" called The Dark Hours. With strong performances from lead actors Kate Greenhouse and Aidan Devine, The Dark Hours becomes more than just another survival horror retread (with a little psychological horror thrown into the mix). Greenhouse and Devine do their best to elevate the sub-par script and indie roots while also providing the fast-moving plot with some added intrigue. With a few good extra features, The Dark Hours becomes a strong (albeit not all that original) DVD that's worth checking out.
It seems to reason that Hollywood make-up designer Todd Tucker may want to stick to his day job after checking out his 29-minute collection of horror skits called Moldy's Madhouse. While the 8-skit collection might seem like a good idea, Scott Weinberg finds Moldy's Madhouse to be "...like a mediocre episode of Saturday Night Live, spiced with a horror theme and boasting only one cast member." That may not exactly be a glowing recommendation of the film, but Weinberg does go on to say that Tucker's work does elicit a few chuckles here and there, several eyeball-rolls, and at least one involuntary groan. Now, if that's not a reason to give this disc a spin, I don't know what else is.
Ian Jane also takes a look at Motor Home Massacre this week and reminds everyone not to be duped by the film's Haute Tension inspired cover art. The film barely delivers a few mediocre gore scenes, some truly schlocky moments, and a bit of slasher-intrigue, but that's about it. "Motor Home Massacre," Ian says, "...shows some promise for first time director Allen Wilbanks, but unfortunately suffers from a pretty poor script (which Wilbanks also wrote), a retarded twist ending, and some horrible characters who show up only to serve as fodder for the killer." I guess it's good news for the die-hard slasher fans who will seek this disc out that Lionsgate has done a nice job with the DVD presentation, but you're probably better off walking right past this one in your local video store.
Finally, we let Scott Weinberg take a crack at the latest horror offering from ThinkFilm, Guardian of the Realm. The film really had him going for a while, until he realized that it's not, in fact, a satire of the action flick genre. Unintentionally packed full of laughs, Guardian of the Realm boasts only one truly awe-inspiring bit of pure cinematic gold: "The unbelievably, astronomically, outrageously, over-the-top camp-classic performance by luscious Lana Pirian as Nasty Nikki, former Siberian mail-order bride who's currently the very curvaceous (and bloodthirsty) vessel for an immortal demon spirit called Virago." How's that for reason enough to put this disc in your Netflix queue?
The only horror film you'll probably be able to find in most first-run theaters is John Moore's remake of the 1976 Richard Donner classic, The Omen. Opening on a Tuesday - to capitalize on the 6/6/06 date - The Omen (2006) certainly brought in quite an audience as it opened to over $12 million (the largest Tuesday opening in motion picture history), but couldn't seem to garner the affection of many critics. Scott Weinberg, Eric D. Snider, and Brian Orndorf each had a chance to check out the nearly shot-for-shot remake starring Julia Stiles and Liev Schreiber, and all concluded that The Omen (2006) is a lazy, dull, and ultimately unnecessary, carbon-copy remake of a horror classic. Dethroned in its first real weekend at the box office by Pixar's Cars, The Omen (2006) may not last all that long in your major cineplexes around the country (especially with all the summer blockbusters about to be unleashed). If you're really keen on seeing this flick, you may need to do so pretty soon. You may, however, just be better off picking up a copy of the new collector's edition DVD of the original film.
John Landis may be an excellent filmmaker, but what makes him a "Master of Horror" is clearly his one legendary entry into the genre: An American Werewolf in London. Landis's hour-long effort for the Showtime series, Deer Woman, though an entertaining and fun little tale is actually more quirky black comedy than it is horror and suspense. The film's oddball story is perfect in the handles of Landis as he injects Deer Woman with his usual off-kilter sense of humor, making it one of the least truly scary entries in the series, but one that is definitely easy to enjoy. Anchor Bay has packed this disc, much like their other Masters of Horror releases, with an excellent commentary track, an extensive interview, and some worthwhile featurettes.
Also in stores this week, Lucky McKee takes a stab (pun completely intended) at the hour-long horror format for the Showtime series with his film Sick Girl. McKee isn't exactly a "master" of the genre quite yet but his previous effort - the underrated (and often overlooked) May - is a creepy, twisted look at a very shy girl (Angela Bettis). Re-teaming with Bettis for Sick Girl, the director crafts a gory horror-comedy about a lesbian relationship and a very nasty bug. Ian Jane agrees that Sick Girl isn't one of the best entries in the Masters of Horror, but fans of McKee might enjoy it for its cool gore effects and the mostly bug. The DVD is, of course, just as packed as all the other Masters of Horror discs, and is easily worth at least a rental.
Stephen Herek's 1986 silly fright flick, Critters is just one of those cheesy '80s horror films that you can't help but watch every single time you happen to catch it on television. Most certainly created to cash in on the huge success of Joe Dante's 1984 critters-run-amok film, Gremlins, Herek's film is a lot more schlock than it is family-friendly. It's not a great film, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is an incredibly fun one. Full of just about everything you could want out of a late-night schlockfest, Critters packs in wacky gore, silly dialogue, and some very creepy little human-munching "Crites." Not only do you get all that, but just take a look at some of the names in this cast: Dee Wallace-Stone, M. Emmet Walsh, Scott Grimes, Billy Zane, Don Keith Opper, and Terrence Mann. If that's not a cast tailor-made for late-night cable, I don't know what is. Critters, nevertheless, has a pretty loyal following and for good reason. It's simply a really entertaining piece of cheese-cinema. Plus, those furry little Crites are not only pretty creepy, but they're also pretty damn funny. This is easily a film worth checking out if you've never seen it.
Sometimes the scariest films don't involve monsters, critters, or anything on-the-surface scary at all. Taking, instead, an incredibly scary real-life situation as the basis of your story can be all the more horrifying. Terence Young's 1967 adaptation of Frederick Knott's stage play, Wait Until Dark uses that very idea to create one of the most thrilling and tension-filled films you're ever likely to see. Imagine being the recently-blinded Susy Hendrix (Audrey Hepburn) as she tries to defend her own home from three ruthless invaders in search of some hidden drugs. Wait Until Dark plunges its main character into an incredibly simple plot and asks her to blindly navigate (both literally and figuratively) her way to safety. The film isn't simply about letting Audrey Hepburn shine in her role (though she does so quite effectively), but it's also about an extreme sense of voyeurism and survival. It's terrifying to watch Hendrix stumble blindly around her apartment, trying to fend off her attackers, but it's also quite thrilling. Not only are these three thugs watching her voyeuristically, but we're watching them watch her. It's like studying a rat in a maze; you know it's going to do something but you're compelled to find out what. Wait Until Dark is a classic in the suspense/thriller genre, but it's also got plenty of elements that could easily make it a horror film. Either way, the film is definitely essential viewing.
Luca Bercovici's Ghoulies may have gotten the jump on Critters by hitting the theaters a year earlier, but it simply lacks the charm of Herek's film. Ghoulies, nevertheless, is still another entertaining entry in the cheesy '80s horror canon. Without the same caliber of cast as Critters it's hard for the film to rise above its cornball roots but, in a way, that's what makes Ghoulies so much fun. Yeah, you get the infamous "toilet shot" and plenty of slimy, fanged creatures running around, but the film is more than just a sum of its plot. To be honest, the plot, acting, and pretty much everything else doesn't matter too much in how much you enjoy Ghoulies. The film isn't entertaining, endearing, and full of fun moments because it's a well-acted, well-scripted, well-directed fright flick. It's a well-loved cult film because of all the people who first discovered it on late-night cable or a crappy VHS copy. The urge to rewatch Ghoulies comes from the desire to relive those crazy moments when the film was something you'd watch with your friends to get a few good chuckles. And that's more than you can say for the staying power of a lot of the current horror fare.
-Region Free Horror Highlights-
This week's Severed Limbs section is all about a few of the best horror DVDs and packages from outside of Region 1. If you're a horror fan and you still don't own a region free DVD player, now is the time to get one. There are so many excellent releases coming out overseas that it's completely worth the money (some region free players can even be had for as little as thirty bucks). We take a look at just a few of the goodies you can get outside of R1.
Clive Barker's Hellraiser is a certifiable horror classic. Not only is the film downright creeptastic and gory, but its main villain has also become an absolute icon of the genre. That being said, Anchor Bay has done a nice job of providing the Region 1 audience with adequate DVD releases of the Hellraiser films. None of their statewide releases, however, can trump what they've given to the Region 2 fans. Packaged in a DVD box set replica of the Lament Configuration Puzzle Box, we have the first three films of the Hellraiser franchise along with a bonus disc of some of Barker's early short films and some really meaty extra material. There's not much more I can say about Hellraiser that hasn't already been said, but suffice to say that this is the ultimate package for you Pinhead fans out there. The packaging alone is worth the price of the box.
"Splat Pack" member Neil Marshall's 2002 werewolf film, Dog Soldiers, is an excellent horror film. It's probably one of the best werewolf films to come around in a very long time. All of which makes it even more impressive that Marshall's follow-up, The Descent, is not only a much better film than its predecessor, but it also just might the best horror film of the last ten years. The very first time I had a chance to see The Descent, I knew that I was seeing something different and special in the horror genre. The story is actually quite simple - several women go spelunking and have a hard time finding their way out of the caverns - but the film handles its subjects in such a way that it becomes so much more than your typical lost-in-the-dark flick. The Descent is, instead, a gruesome, gritty film about survival, friendship, loyalty, and the will to live. Picked up by Lionsgate for US distribution (and set to hit theaters August 4th), the film will leave you clamoring to see what Marshall will do next. The region free capable will be pleased to hear that Pathe Distribution's two-disc release is an absolutely fantastic DVD set. Several commentary tracks and worthwhile extra features are just the icing on the cake as The Descent itself would be enough for you to run out and buy this R2 disc. And don't forget that Lionsgate has already decided to alter Marshall's original ending for the film (which makes a huge difference), so every discerning horror fan owes it to him or herself to pick this disc up (original ending intact).
Angus Scrimm's portrayal of "The Tall Man" in Don Coscarelli's horror classic, Phantasm, is easily one of the creepiest performances (and characters) in the history of the genre. The mysterious character is Coscarelli's film and is one of the reasons that Phantasm has become so dearly loved among horror fans (and probably the only reason that the franchise went as far as it did). MGM's DVD of the original film is an adequate presentation of the classic film, but nowhere near as cool as Anchor Bay's R2 special edition "Sphere" box set. Housed in a shiny, silver replica of the killer spheres from the films, this box set features the first four films in the Phantasm series as well as a fifth bonus disc of extra material. Limited to only 20,000 units, this box set is a Phantasm lover's dream with tons of special features and quality audio-visual presentations. And what horror fan could pass up that amazingly cool sphere packaging?
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