DVD Stalk: Pan's Labyrinth, Masters of Horror: Family, and Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
We kick off this week's batch of horror DVD reviews with Randy Miller III's take on the recent 2-disc Platinum Series DVD release of Guillermo Del Toro's fantastic Pan's Labyrinth. Randy's take on the film is great, so I'll step aside and let him have the floor: "Movies are a visual medium, but a truly memorable fantasy film needs more than pretty sights and a convincing atmosphere to make a lasting impression. Believable characters, a solid story and room for viewer interpretation are all hallmarks of a truly successful effort; after all, we need a sense of familiarity to accept a given world, but it needs to be surreal enough for us to stick around willingly. Guillermo Del Toro's most recent project, Pan's Labyrinth, blends fantasy with horror---and while it's certainly not the first film to do so, it's one of the most effective in recent memory. In other words, those who enjoy carefully-woven dramas sprinkled with mystery, imagination and suspense have come to the right place...The film's balance, of course, is maintained by the striking real-world backdrop of civil war and the violence in its wake. Captain Vidal is a fascist who hoards food and medical supplies to flush out local Republican rebels, lording over the landscape as the film's most easily-identified villain. His penchant for cold-blooded judgment and torture are sharply revealed in several stages, from the brutal killing of innocent farmers to the physical demolition of an imprisoned rebel. Vidal is the true monster of Pan's Labyrinth, mirroring The Big Bad Wolf and a plethora of beasts from classic fairy tales. He rules over the house with an iron fist, carefully watching the moves of Ofelia, her mother and the hired help. It's no surprise, then, that the young girl often feels more comfortable in a world of fantasy...These two worlds are blended seamlessly, both in a technical sense and a spiritual one. Del Toro frequently employs careful vertical wipes---made to resemble the turning of pages, according to the director's commentary---to coax us into making subtle connections between Vidal's homestead and the mystical labyrinth. His deliberate use of color is another telling giveaway, contrasting the increasingly cold reality of Ofelia's life with the surreal warmth of her fantasy world. The film's solid production design also anchors Pan's Labyrinth nicely, from detailed and carefully-framed sets to amazing costume design and practical effects. It's literally a feast for the eyes...but as mentioned before, it's got plenty of substance to back up the style...Lush and immersive, Pan's Labyrinth is truly a film to get lost in. Skillfully blending equal parts fantasy and horror, the cold and warm corners of our young protagonist's world are well-rendered and striking. It's almost disarming in its simplicity, yet subtle layers lurk underneath for those who enjoy digging. In all respects, this is a truly amazing work of art..." Guillermo Del Toro simply expands his visions with each and every film he makes. Pan's Labyrinth is a revelation and an excellent piece of filmmaking. Don't let the subtitles scare you away. This is one film that should not be missed under any circumstances.
John Landis has made some really fun, classic horror films and his first season entry in the Masters Of Horror series may not have been the year's best, but it was definitely one of the more interesting highlights. Here's Ian Jane with his take on the director's second season episode: "John Landis' first entry in Showtime's Masters Of Horror was a wicked slice of black comedy called Deer Woman. Brought back for a second round, Landis again returns to the horror-comedy well that he's tapped before with films like An American Werewolf In London by casting George Wendt of Cheers fame in a story that feels very much like an episode of HBO's Tales from the Crypt...A quirky little slice of suburban life gone horribly wrong, Family is very much in the same vein as lighter Masters Of Horror fare such as Landis' earlier and aforementioned Deer Woman and Lucky McKee's Sick Girl. Although there are a few moments of fairly strong gore the emphasis here is on laughs rather than on any legitimate shocks. Wendt does a fantastic job in the lead and makes the most out of his legitimately bizarre role while Monroe vamps it up incredibly effectively and steals a few key scenes that feed Harold's growing fever dreams. Of course, Landis builds it all to a shocking ending which attentive viewers will probably figure out before they're supposed to, but getting there is at least made enjoyable by some good acting and some very nice camera work...Go into this one expecting nothing more than some schlocky thrills and a few decent laughs and you'll walk away from satisfied. It's far from a classic, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do and fans of horror-comedy hybrids should enjoy it enough to give it a shot." If Ian says it's worth a shot, horror fans, that means it's definitely worth checking out.
DVD Savant is back for this week's DVD Stalk. Here's what he has to say about the new re-imagining of a genre classic. "This new 2005 version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a scene-for scene re-enactment of the 1919 Decla-Bioscop German classic, using digital compositing methods to combine new image elements with backgrounds from the original film. As with Gus Van Sant's 1998 Psycho, which copied Alfred Hitchcock's original almost shot for shot, this new DVD of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari raises a number of questions about the wisdom of reconstituting a classic so closely. Is this an homage, or something more akin to plagiarism?...If the Big Boys can play around with film history with impunity, one can't immediately pounce on ambitious independents. Filmmaker David Lee Fisher built his Caligari re-think around the (presumably) public domain German silent, using ingenious means to make a reasonably faithful talkie version. It's still in B&W but has been reformatted for widescreen. The story un-spools the same way, but instead of retaining the original's unbroken, static master scenes, Fisher has added new two-shot and single coverage to handle new dialogue extrapolated from the old original inter-titles...The film's most publicized trick is its re-use of the 1919 film's actual set designs. As most of the scenes in Wiene's film are shown from only one or two angles, frames from the original were extracted and cleaned up (liberally re-painted, most likely) and then used as backgrounds for new action recorded on a green screen stage. Certain props and wall pieces were built full-scale, but fewer than one would think. When Alan sits on a sofa, he's actually sitting on a green box in a green void, as the sofa is part of the 1919 background artwork. Perhaps video experts would be more critical -- I see some imperfect mattes here and there -- yet for the most part the blending of old backgrounds with new actors works extremely well...The new version has been called a "remix" in the same way that older hit recordings have been re-orchestrated with new rhythms and vocals. "Remix" not only sounds hip but it makes the alterations seem legit, as if it's unreasonable to protest the rebirth of an old movie in a new presentation. Who wants to watch a flickery, fuzzy relic with bad contrast and clumsy inter-titles? The new version has a velvety-smooth visual surface and more accessible performances. It can even be said that the new filmmakers accomplish good approximations of some aspects of the old film...Yet the new Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains a precocious stunt film, something that horror fans might want to check out but don't really need. Everything "good" about the movie points back to its model, the 1919 film that now seems more revolutionary than ever, with its convoluted, Freud-inspired storyline. Our eyes immediately go to details that don't match the original, as the new film cannot establish a "life" of its own...the Remix is simply unnecessary. The first thing one wants to do is go back and see the original, real movie created by brilliant minds, the one that ushered movies into new possibilities of psychological complexity." While it's not all that interesting, there are some good moments to be found in this latest rethinking of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Savant says it's worth your time, and I tend to agree.
BCI Eclipse continues their line of recent classic horrors and this batch is a good one. Adam Tyner is here to check out two of their most recent releases. Here's what he has to say about the first: "The Night of the Werewolf (El Retorno del Hombre Lobo) [is] another installment in Paul Naschy's long-running and loosely-connected series about the lycanthropic Count Waldemar Daninsky. Naschy himself stepped behind the camera as director to bring this mainstay of 1970s Eurohorror into the '80s, but unlike the post-modern take on the mythos in An American Werewolf In London and the darkly comedic The Howling that would follow a year later, Naschy's approach owes more to the traditional, gothic horror of decades past...The Night of the Werewolf is in large part a glossier version of Werewolf Shadow, which Naschy had starred in and co-written nearly a decade earlier...I have to admit to not thinking much of some of the earlier films in the series when I first saw them years ago, and I'm sure I would've had the same reaction to The Night of the Werewolf at the time. The pacing is slower and more deliberate than the werewolf movies I grew up with, and Daninsky is rarely seen fully transformed. Really, it's not difficult to argue that despite their titles, Werewolf Shadow and The Night of the Werewolf are better described as vampire films than werewolf movies, and they aren't drenched in blood by either standard. Seeing these movies again through somewhat older eyes, I appreciate them much more now, and The Night of the Werewolf is by far the best of the lot...Naschy and cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa have a keen visual eye, and this film had the luxury of enough time and money to be artful in a way that previous installments lacked. Its earlier moments root the film in a particular time and place -- some bikini-clad, poolside exposition and the girls' arrival by car -- but once the story gets underway, The Night of the Werewolf deftly transforms itself into gothic horror, set entirely in torchlit castles and dusty underground crypts. Swap out some of the wardrobe and it could just as easily be taking place a hundred years earlier...Admittedly, the storytelling has its clumsier moments, some of the film's effects probably looked dated even when The Night of the Werewolf was first released more than 25 years ago, and its slower pace and restrained violence may bore viewers weaned on bloodier, more brutal movies. To me, at least, The Night of the Werewolf is such a finely crafted homage to classic horror that what might normally have been shortcomings are really are just part of its charm." If you're unfamiliar with the work of Paul Naschy, The Night of the Werewolf is a good place to dig in, and BCI Eclipse's disc is a top-notch way to check it out.
"In his introduction on this DVD from BCI Eclipse's new Deimos imprint, writer and star Paul Naschy twice describes Vengeance of the Zombies as strange, and...yeah, "una pelicula extraña" is one way to put it...This 1972 slice of Eurocult, presented for the first time in the U.S. uncut, is described in the DVD's liner notes as a mix of a German krimi and a zombie film. I can't say I'm all that familiar with krimi, but if Vengeance of the Zombies is any indication, it's not too far removed from the Italian giallo...Naschy likened the movie to a drug-induced nightmare in his autobiography, and it's every bit as odd and incoherent as that suggests. This is a movie with a killer who cycles through a series of increasingly bizarre dime store fright masks...with a virtuous Indian guru squaring off against the fire-scarred evil brother who possesses him every once in a while...dueling pitchforks, bloodletting by way of beer can, chicken decapitation, voodoo-induced suicide, brutal murders with various farm implements, shamelessly gratuitous sex scenes, zombified women with beaming smiles...Sure, that kind of off-the-wall incoherence has its charm, but Vengeance of the Zombies is too scattershot, and its meager budget drags it down a bit. Most of the Spanish horror films I've seen have primarily been shot outside, making use of crumbling tombs and graveyards bathed in moonlight. Vengeance of the Zombies spends most of its time in sparsely decorated sets, and the distractingly cheap production values and off-kilter camera angles keep the movie from ever establishing much of a creepy ambiance...What tension there may have been in Vengeance of the Zombies is defused by the movie's upbeat, jazzy score. There's something bizarre about seeing a woman awake to the sight of zombified hands inches from her face...darting frantically around her house only to stumble upon the mutilated corpses of her loved ones...all to the tune of an up-tempo lounge act. I don't really get the impression that Vengeance of the Zombies was trying to establish some ominous sense of dread, although I'll also admit to not knowing what the hell it's going for, exactly. Still, a disjointed, chaotic near-miss can be more fun to watch than something bland and conventional, and even if I can't enthusiastically recommend Vengeance of the Zombies as a movie, you'll probably at least find it worth a rental if you've bothered to read this far."
Ian Jane is back again to tackle the first of two new Tartan Video releases in the Asian Horror genre. Here's what he has to say about the slightly-misleading Cinderella: "[It] is an interesting 'horror' movie that's being marketed as a more extreme looking piece than it really is. While the packaging would have you believe that this is a film very much in the same vein as popular Asian imports like the Ju-On or The Ring series', the fact of the matter is that this is more of a psychological thriller with some supernatural elements mixed in as much as it's about long haired creepy Asian ghost girls popping out and yelling 'boo.'...More of a dark social commentary than an actual ghost story, the movie plays around with a few interesting themes and takes a few well placed pot shots at how society has forced women into being so overly concerned with their looks. We learn as much about how Hyoon-su and her mother wound up in this strange place by way of some interesting bits and pieces of back story than we do about the requisite ghost-girl who may or may not be behind all of this and it's interesting how the script ties in some commentary about parenting and family values in and amongst the periodic scenes of supernatural spookiness...While it's certainly obvious that the film borrows what have no become staples of the recent boom of Asian horror films, such as the long haired ghost and the strange cellular phone related creepiness, at least the filmmakers tried for something a little different here in terms of the storytelling...While hardly a modern classic, Cinderella gets enough right that it's worth a look. It won't scare you out of your seat but it touches on some interesting themes and it does so with a modicum of smarts and enough style to work." A slightly interesting take on the usual J-Horror themes, Cinderella is certainly worth checking out at least once.
And here's Mike Long with a look at this week's second Tartan title, The Ghost: "For some reason, many American filmgoers think that Hollywood product is unoriginal and saccharine, while foreign films are intellectual and far superior. (I blame snobby critics for this.) Sure, there are plenty of foreign films which are very poignant, artsy, and have a more serious tone than American films. But, there are also foreign films which are just as derivative as anything made in Tinseltown. The Korean film The Ghost is a good example of this, as even the bland title tells us to not expect anything overly unique...This is pure conjecture, but I can only imagine that I Know What You Did Last Summer was a huge hit in South Korea, because it appears that many horror films from that country copy its formula. (The first South Korean horror film that I remember seeing, Nightmare AKA Gawi, was a complete rip-off of I Know What You Did Last Summer.) With The Ghost, we get a film which brings in the I Know What You Did Last Summer vibe and adds the familiar supernatural elements from The Ring and Ju-on. But, we also get a nice dash of Mean Girls and something like Memento. (And, I kept thinking of Prom Night while watching it as well.) The result is a film which goes beyond feeling familiar to be simply derivative...The Ghost is an uneven film at best. The ending will confuse most viewers and we never know for sure if the seance at the film's outset truly caused the events which transpire in the movie. For those of you who are tired of the "long-haired female ghost" genre of Asian horror films, The Ghost will be just another copycat entry into that long line of movies." This one's also worth simply a rental spin.
No, we couldn't possibly be reviewing another remake of a horror classic, could we? Yup. We most certainly could. Here's some of what Eric D. Snider thinks of The Hitcher: "Onscreen titles at the beginning of The Hitcher tell us that 42,000 people are killed on American highways each year. That information, while probably accurate, is irrelevant to the content of the movie. Unless those 42,000 are all killed not by traffic accidents but by homicidal maniacs. Which seems a little high to me...The script is credited to Eric Red (who wrote the original, too) and two others, yet shows all the signs of being absurdly padded to fill out the running time. There are only so many different ways that a non-supernatural killer can keep catching up with the same pair of people, so the story runs dry at about the 60-minute mark. The last 15 minutes are an obvious and desperate attempt to make the film long enough to count as a real movie, and Jim and Grace's actions become more and more ridiculous as it goes...It's too bad. The film begins promisingly enough, and the cast (including Neal McDonough as a state trooper) is strong. If only they had a good story and enough solid thrills to sustain it for longer than a half-hour...The Hitcher is not the worst horror remake in recent years, but it's not good, either. Fans of the film will find the DVD treatment acceptable; for everyone else, there's no reason even to rent it. Don't bother picking this one up."
"Okay, The Mad may have a generic zombie movie cover and a generic zombie movie tagline, but how many generic zombie movies give top billing to Billy Zane and kick off with a lengthy cow montage? That'd be "none" -- and stop me if you see where I'm going with this -- and that's 'cause The Mad is anything but a mindless, standard issue gut-muncher...It's a cautionary tale, really: organic beef turns you into an undead flesh-eater...Plenty of zombie flicks have been laced with a cacklingly dark sense of humor over the past twenty years and change, but most of 'em are still horror movies at heart or at least manage to cram in a couple of genuinely intense sequences. The Mad, on the other hand, is almost completely a straightahead comedy. Sure, plenty of the red stuff is sloshed around, and there's some gnawing on severed limbs and all that fun stuff, but you can tell that this isn't where the movie's heart is...that it's there just 'cause this is a zombie movie and that's what zombies do. Perfunctory, as I think the kids say, not reveling in the guts-'n-grue. Really, that's only a third of the movie anyway. The Mad is chopped up into three distinct acts, each running 25 minutes or so. Act one: set up your characters. Act two: kill most of 'em off by tossing in a bunch of zombies. Act three: have the few survivors escape to the farm that's shipping out the zombie-beef to stave off the contagion...The Mad has a smirkingly low-key sense of humor, not turning to grotesquely over-the-top splatter for laughs like Dead Alive...A good bit of the comedy misses the mark, but enough of it's funny for the movie to still work, and the cast and crew are clearly having such a great time shooting the flick that it's almost infectious...The Mad seems like it was rushed out the door, playing more like a rough cut than a tightly-edited, brilliantly paced horror-comedy. It's an already lean flick, clocking in under eighty minutes minus credits, but I get the impression that it'd play a lot better with another ten or fifteen minutes snipped out. The Mad is too uneven for me to recommend shelling out fifteen bucks to buy sight-unseen, but zombie-comedy fans still might find it worth a rental." I couldn't have said it any better myself. Adam Tyner just completely sold me on this movie. Check it out for all the crazy Zom-Com madness you can stand.
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