DVD Stalk: Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, Dead Silence, and Abandoned
We kick off this week's batch of horror DVD reviews with Bill Gibron's take on the most highly-anticipated DVD release of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. Bill calls the disc one of the top DVDs of the year so far, and one that should stay on that very list throughout the year. Here's a bit of what he has to say about the film: "Those of us still enamored with the fright flick need look no further than the fantastic indie effort Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, to satisfy our need for salient shivers. Even better, this is a smart, witty satire that recognizes the inherent value of genre, and celebrates it in a significant cinematic way...Though it takes a couple of very minor tumbles along the way, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is one of the best, most original horror spoofs to come down the movie macabre pipeline in a very long time. Like a substantially sharper Scream, it wants to deconstruct the slice and dice genre staples while creating some terror benchmarks all its own. First time filmmaker Scott Glosserman should be proud of what he accomplishes here. The narrative is fresh, innovative, intelligent as Hell, and completely capable of delivering both scares and satire. Taking the slasher storyline as a literal lifestyle choice, and tossing in a solid murderer's mythology, he resurrects a long dormant fear factor and makes it sing with new cinematic significance. To call this a love letter to the archetypal fright flick crafted by a true fan (or in this case, fans, since David J. Stieve helped with the script) would be doing this movie a grand, over-generalized disservice. This is a clever compendium of every splatter riff we're used to, with a unique perspective which turns the entire serial killer premise on its pointed, provocative head. If initial impact is any indication of future success, Glosserman and Stieve will be macabre maestros for decades to come. What they manage here may have already sealed the deal...Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon minimizes its mistakes and becomes something of a horror movie epiphany. It may be too soon to call it a masterwork, but it does deserve such consideration. Aside from thwarting convention and attempting to reinvent two entire genres (dread and the mock documentary), this is the kind of movie that makes tried and true macabre mavens smile slyly to one another. It's not just the cameo appearances by Robert Englund (doing his best Dr. Loomis take) and Zelda Rubinstein (little Ms. Poltergeist herself), or the moment when the filmmakers take us to Crystal Lake, Elm Street and Haddenfield, Illinois to revisit some favorite old 'haunts'. Horror is a cinematic category that is frequently undermined by critics and scholars as gratuitous and artless. Anyone who treats it seriously deserves respect in return. But in this case, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon takes it religiously - and if you're one of the converted, you'll adore the way it preaches. Definitely one of the best DVDs out this year, fright fans should rejoice. Something this special doesn't come around that often...Come December, when a year's worth of DVD viewing is reduced down to a single set of ten titles, one thing is definitely for certain - Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon will be among said 'Best of' number. It is hard to imagine a better example of post-modern motion picture reimagining than this laugh out loud lark."
If you're coming late to this one, here's the basic gist of Dead Silence for you: "Dare to unlock the deadly curse of Mary Shaw...From the writers and director of Saw comes a new thriller of relentless terror! Ever since Mary Shaw was hunted down and killed, the small town of Ravens Fair has been haunted by horrific deaths. When a local's wife is brutally murdered, he returns home to unravel the terrifying legend of Mary Shaw and the reason why when you see her, you should never, ever scream." The film isn't quite as silly as it sounds. Close, but not quite. Now, Dead Silence hasn't really been getting raves from the critics, but I have to admit that I actually really enjoyed the film when I had the chance to watch it last week. Sure, the cover art looks like you're about to watch a Magic remake, but Wan's tale is no genre rehash. It's nice to see Wan do something outside of the Saw franchise, and while Dead Silence certainly isn't a perfect film it had enough fun scares and simple genre schlockiness to make it an enjoyable ride. Trust me, if you're looking for something to watch this week, you could do a lot worse. Stay tuned for our full review coming up soon. In the meantime, get over to your favorite retailer and check out Dead Silence.
Bill Gibron's back to fill us in on the final release of the AfterDark "Films to Die For." Here's what he has to say about The Abandoned: "For a few months there, you couldn't escape the ads. They were everywhere - on websites, on television, even in the very theaters where the promised marathon was taking place. It was the good old fashioned hard sell - and it worked. There was lots of buzz surrounding the movie macabre event. But when the massively overhyped 8 Films to Die For Horrorfest from AfterDark (a b-movie distributor) finally arrived in November of 2006, it was clear that there was more ballyhoo than bite to this particular octet of titles. Many were merely routine rejects, productions left languishing after their ineffectual terrors were tried out by several of the standard scare factories. During the initial run, fans were allowed to vote for their favorite, and when all was said and done, The Abandoned won the distinction of best scary movie - and a full blown solo theatrical release. Making a minor splash this past spring, Lionsgate finally unleashes this last installment in the series to DVD. The question, of course, remains if it was worth the special attention. With its motion picture pedigree, the answer is a solid "Yes"...Clearly one of the best works featured as part of the 8 Films to Die For After Dark Horrorfest from last November (slightly better than The Hamiltons and The Gravedancers, if not quite as good as Reincarnation) The Abandoned represents Spanish dread director Nacho Cerdà's full length feature film debut. Beginning life as Bloodline, this exceptional 2006 effort follows a career in controversial short subjects for the 38 year old. Previously, he was responsible for the necrophilia gross out Aftermath (actually, a rather refined meditation on death and playing God) and the surreal sculpture creepfest Genesis. This time around, the filmmaker avoids the graphic and the gruesome to concentrate on atmosphere and suspense, and just like he did with dead bodies and biologically viable artworks, he succeeds admirably. Cerdà is much more than a mere moviemaker. He's the very definition of an auteur, an artisan whose visionary style is present in every frame of his films. From their dulled color palettes and set design detail, to the determined use of his camera, Cerdà is in complete control of his imagery. It helps salvage the storyline when it gets too convoluted, and maintains the dread when his characters occasionally fall over into formula...Reminiscent of a Russian countryside take on The Shining (complete with Stanley Kubrick's patented static lens logistics), The Abandoned will flummox those fright fans looking for something gratuitous and gory...Film students should study Cerdà for examples of how to milk sequences for their maximum macabre impact. In essence, it's all a matter of information management- what we know, what the characters know, and how that dichotomy plays out. By slowly unveiling its plot points in carefully considered bits, The Abandoned builds quite a head of sinister steam. That it doesn't manage to turn the release valve all the way to 'open' is one of the movie's minor flaws...Granted, The Abandoned does end on a grandiose whimper rather than a simple scream, and Cerdà sort of directs himself into a circle that's hard to escape from, but when you compare it to the slasher slop of something like Dark Ride, or the grade Z zombie stumble of Wicked Little Things, it's a masterpiece. About the only undeniable element of this above average fright flick is Nacho Cerdà's future as a filmmaker. While this effort is not without its problems, the outlook ahead seems very bright for this director's dark visions."
"In the case of Chicago Massacre: Richard Speck, the weak link in the cinematic chain is quite obvious. In fact, from the opening 'shots', you can tell whose failing to hold up their end of the mutual moviemaking bargain...Made in 10 days and with a very limited budget, Chicago Massacre: Richard Speck is much better than anticipated. It contains a powerhouse performance from former child star (Parker Lewis Can't Lose) Corin Nemec, offers a script that is level-headed and coherent (most of the time), and manages to capture a real sense of dread and foreboding with limited logistical advantages. In fact, if it weren't for one blatant motion picture defect, this would be an excellent outsider thriller. All the pieces are in place for something familiar and yet fresh, the serial killer story told from a much more passive, personal standpoint. But of course, Michael Feifer isn't really capable of such earnestness or effectiveness. His previous films, including the mediocre Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield (featuring a completely miscast Kane Hodder as the crazed cannibal) and the Final Destination rip-off Grim Reaper, indicate a longtime genre producer barely competent behind the lens. Granted, Chicago Massacre: Richard Speck is a vast improvement over previous atrocities, but Feifer has yet to figure out the language of film. His narrative leaps both logic and time spans, moving from the past to the present to the yet to occur at a startling, scattered rate. Even worse, he relies on tricks that amateur hacks put away long ago, post-production jerryrigging that ruins many of the more disturbing moments...Nemec is sensational, playing Speck as kind of a redneck gone repugnant. It's a very post-modern performance, failing really to capture the loner gone loony that this crazed killer really represented. Still, in a physically demanding part that asks him to be morally repulsive and authentically abusive, Nemec is nice and nasty. He makes a perfect bad guy, and we can't wait until he gets his well deserved comeuppance. About the only awkward part to his performance are the badly rendered facial scars...You may not appreciate the context in which it's provided, and probably think that too many liberties have been taken with Speck's already inhuman actions, but the performances here are well worth appreciating. They definitely overcome the movies more mediocre missteps."
Daniel Siwek makes a rare appearance in our column to give us his take on this latest work about the legendary H.P. Lovecraft. "It opens like those old black and white Universal picture, only here the HPLHS logo is proudly displayed over the revolving globe. Those initials, for the uninitiated, stand for the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, a group of devotees to the live-action role-playing game, Cthulhu Lives. Now if a movie based on a game based on a fetish with the gothic-horror author of the same name already scared you away, then good, because this one is only for the hardcore. But what you should know is that these guys have so much passion for this writer they have their own film festival, thus making Lovecraft-films a subgenre of its own. Based on the writer's infamous 1926 short story, The Call of Cthulhu, this film adaptation realizes what many Lovecraft fans had deemed "unfilmable" by independent filmmakers lacking big Hollywood money. Lovecraft genre veterans, Andrew Leman and Sean Branney, create an enchanting homage to the 1920's silents; worthy of Murnau, Vigo, Cocteau, Krauss, and Lang. The film is ripe with Stimmung or atmosphere in every frame, and Andrew's use of authentic 1920's crafted documents, are an added treat... Recognizing budget limitations, the filmmakers don't give us Hulk-y version of Sigmund and the Sea Monster, however the blocks our characters have to jump on an off does make us feel as if we're in the Land of the Lost at times. But for the most part, the use of models, matting, stop-motion and most of all, "Mythoscope" - a term they coined describing the use of modern equipment to recreate the magical glow of the old silents - is nothing less than inspiring. Talk about putting the money on the screen, from the opening titles, to the Dali-inspired "dream-sequence," these guys have but two commitments; tell the story in a way that would satisfy even the fanatic's fanatic, and make it look like it would have been the hot new film adaptation for the Roaring Twenties....The Call of Cthulhu is Coup d'état for Lovecraft fans and indie filmmakers alike. While directors from John Carpenter to Sam Raimi have pulled from his books for years, Branney and Leman prove that dedication and some old-school tricks can help preserve the text rather than ruining it big productions often do. Kenneth Anger's films may have been a display of his devotion to Aleister Crowley, and the HPLHS successfully carved out their own cottage industry of fan worship."
Thomas Spurlin tackles another Tartan Video release with his take on Silk. Here's a bit of what he has to say about the film: "Sometimes when you try and do two things at once, you fumble each activity and end up doing both an injustice. Guisi aka Silk, a Chinese action / horror flick from director Chao-Pin Su, suffers from such a deficiency. Instead of running far away from the pack with originality in breadth and storyline originality, Silk stumbles over its own attempts at overachievement a bit and suffers from a degrading case of identity confusion...Much like the cube Hashimoto holds, this simple yet jointed and multi-layered narrative can undoubtedly suck you in. The obvious mystery behind the sulking, imprisoned boy grows moderately intriguing, as does the underlying mystique behind Hashimoto's actions. However, Silk could take a page or two from Guillermo Del Toro's superior Devil's Backbone for some attachment advice. We don't really share any strong affinity with the young boy. He remains a mysterious object throughout most of the film without any revelatory history. Care and intrigue for the already existent history of the haunting child slips into our conscience within Del Toro's flick. Silk, however, leaves the child's motives to push forward an inexplicable mystery in hopes that it could make the audience care more...Minor stumbling blocks aside, the real issue within Silk is this integration of an aggressive, action-based demeanor. Such a creepy story should grasp an equally smooth and subtly terrifying mood. Instead, the accompanied camerawork and score choices lend a rapid, advancing tone to Silk...What impressed me about Silk, however, was its terrific integration with metaphysical and scientific ideas into the ghastly narrative. It's strange; though the film doesn't hit into full throttle with the scares or the action either one, it manages to ensnare both of these to a moderate degree while injecting peculiarly intriguing discussions about matter, stability, and the essence of silk. This is a film that's far from perfect, and I mean that in retrospective focus on what that film in particular could be. Silk, even with a few blemishes, is a creepy and tense horror adventure that delivers multiple inklings of segmented, concealed quality instead of bringing together a full-blown package...Silk had my hopes high for a very strong flick. It delivered, but to a very subdued and confusing degree. To tackle both horror and action in one film effectively, you've got to find that steadfast balance between elements that Silk didn't fully ensnare. However, though not faultless, Silk gathers together enough spurts of fright, tension, and unique scientific discussion definitely worth the watch."
"ID (2005) is director Kei Fujiwara's second feature. Her first, 1995's Organ, set the stage for her style, that of the surreal, the grotesque, the kind of film you'd expect from the co-star and cinematographer of Tetsuo: The Iron Man...While I don't think ID the most effective surrealist feature, Kei Fujiwara at least wins points for the memorably monestrous and whacked out. There are some comedic strains too, often the case with off kilter, dark film making (think Takashi Miike), that I don't think work that well. On one hand you have the crusty chief butcher's young son, who he force feeds pork in order to make up for his lacking mature hormones. The child is played by an adult actor and its a cute absurdist bit. On the other end, yet another slaughterhouse worker has a son that is an adult man-child who cross dresses. Here we have a bit that feels forced and unnecessary...Despite my misgivings, I enjoyed ID. One will find much that feeds a cult, surreal film fans appetite, from nightmare/flashbacks sequences of blood-soaked murder and animated intestines that look very Svankmajeresque, symbolic substitutes for the male phallus like roses and spring coils, as well as the finale where Harmonica and a abbatoir workers wife morph into a big, mossy, baseball bat wielding, ID monster...While it may not be the most lucid work of surrealism (some would say thats not even a fair thing to say when it comes to the genre), ID certainly delivers the utterly bizarre and extremely memorable."
Take it away, Mike Long: "The recent release of the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez double-feature Grindhouse was meant to evoke memories of those days gone by when one could catch a few B (or Z) grade movies at the local theater. Even though the movie didn't perform as well at the box office as predicted, this event has no doubt triggered thoughts of those older films in many fans and home video companies. Thus, we get DVD releases such as this Al Adamson Double Features of Five Bloody Graves and Nurse Sherri...Five Bloody Graves is narrated by Death. Yes, the Grim Reaper, who is voiced by Gene Raymond. Death waxes poetically about how Ben Thompson and Setago are his messengers and how he rides his pale horse beside them. That is a weird and novel touch. And that's the only unique thing going on here...The second feature here is Nurse Sherri, also known as Hospital of Terror AKA Beyond the Living, and so on. (This multitude of names verifies the film's drive-in movie pedigree.)...Drive-in movies were notorious for attempting to cash in hot trends, and Nurse Sherri tries to cram in as many as possible. Possession, cults, blaxploitation film, action films, and sexy nurses were all in vogue in the mid 1970s and this movie has them all. Unfortunately, it doesn't add up to much. Nurse Sherri is a bargain-basement stinker which will test even the "so bad it's good" crowd. The acting is awful, the "hospital" set is a hallway with a water fountain, the special effects would make Sid & Marty Krofft blush, and the story is confusing. Is Reanhauer a ghost or a possessor? Does it matter? The pacing is incredibly bad, as seemingly important scenes run short, while a car chase goes on for nearly 10 minutes. Lacking gore or T&A (more on that in a moment), Nurse Sherri will only disappoint exploitation fans...One of the great things about DVD is that it allows long-forgotten films to have a second life. But, some movies, such as Five Bloody Graves and Nurse Sherri should stay dead. Shock-O-Rama has created a nice drive-in retro feel here, but the movies are simply too dull."
David Cornelius wraps up this week's review highlights with a peek at the disappointing Creature Features: "The three-part documentary Creature Features promises to be an insightful, thorough analysis of a century of horror cinema. But it's an empty promise: the series plays instead like any other clip show, one with all logic removed. The narration is high class and the producers take some chances by presenting the occasional art house obscurity, but the overall result is shallow talk that offers nothing new to the discussion...A 2003 co-production between European filmmakers and the Bravo cable network, Creature Features divides itself into three 50-minute themed chapters, covering "The Beasts," "The Machines," and "The Dead." The breakdown of each episode is fairly obvious from the titles, although the producers play it loose throughout. A clip from Jim Jarmusch's somber western Dead Man strangely wraps up "The Beasts;" footage from several Star Wars movies help round out the discussion of "The Machines;" and the trailer for Once Upon a Time in the West is inexplicably detailed in "The Dead." If these non-horror examples seem out of place, it's because they are. Even when the narration manages to actually explain these unusual additions, they feel too off topic to matter...But then, the whole affair is scattershot. There's no attempt to subcategorize within the three broad classifications, leaving the series to linger on one subgenre, skip over another completely; we bounce from idea to idea with increasingly annoying randomness....Even as a mere clip show, Creature Features stumbles. It offers no insight behind the films it's introducing (at best, we get a subtitle revealing the title, director, and year of release) and zero discussion of the cultural impact of any of the titles shown. Worse, most of the movies showcased are presented not with clips, but clips of their respective trailers (and, in a few key moments, production stills). Genre fans anxious to see famous footage of important films will be sorely disappointed, and heads will become overly scratched in wondering why the series would spend so much time on relatively "minor" titles, then ignore other, more highly influential fare.Hardcore horror buffs might find a few minutes of interest here and there, but as a useful study of how the genre properly reflects ever-changing times, the series is a flat-out dud."
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