DVD Stalk: Toronto Horror '06, Head Trauma, and Masters of Horror: Dance of the Dead
-Toronto Horror 2006 by Scott Weinberg-
The Toronto International Film Festival always seems to dig up a few choice horror flicks, but this year they delivered a massive infusion of genre-style loveliness. Eight of the Midnight Madness selections could be accurately described as horror-ish in nature, while some of the other film slates managed to sneak a few creep-fests into the mix. Needless to say, I was in horror geek heaven. Here's a brief rundown of what I dug (which was most of 'em) and what I did not (which wasn't a whole lot).
All the Boys Love Mandy Lane - If 80's-era slashers are your thing, you'll enjoy this smart little stalker story. A bunch of kids head out to an isolated ranch for a weekend of debauchery, but... well, you'll see. (Dimension recently purchased this one.)
Black Sheep - A well-made, beautifully-shot, and admirably goofy piece of comedy/horror stew, this one's about a vicious virus that turns docile sheep into ravenous freaks. Lots of fun.
End of the Line - Imagine a pretty nasty zombie film that takes place completely inside of a dank subway tunnel. And then take out the zombies and replace 'em with ultra-loony, dagger-wielding religious psychos.
Fido - An irresistible combination of George Romero, Douglas Sirk, Norman Rockwell, and (a bit of) Shaun of the Dead. Silly, slimy, and actually kinda sweet. Plus it contains some great work by Dylan Baker and Carrie Anne Moss.
The Host - A South Korean genre treat that's equal parts action, horror, comedy, drama and adventure epic. Has just the slightest bit of fat on its bones, but I suspect the U.S. version will be a bit slimmer than its 119-minute size. And it's got one of the coolest monsters EVER.
The Last Winter - The director of Wendigo goes chilly again, this time with an environmentally-minded thriller about madness, isolation, and what the wrath of Mother Nature can do to a team of oil drillers.
Pan's Labyrinth - Nobody does horror fantasy like Guillermo del Toro, and this just might be the director's finest film so far. Bold, brilliant, addictively watchable stuff.
S&MAN - Is it a documentary, a satire, or an indictment? You decide.
Severance - The director of Creep goes a little bit lighter in this amusingly energetic little slasher tale; a group of weapon-company execs head out for a wilderness retreat. Suffice to say they don't all make it back.
Sheitan - Aside from a wild-eyed and enjoyably feral performance by Vincent Cassel, this freaky French flick is more garish and ugly than effectively chilling. Still, I know some folks who dug it a whole lot more than I did...
We kick off this week's huge batch of horror DVD reviews with Scott Weinberg's take on a surprisingly good little horror film called Head Trauma. For someone who sits through as much subpar schlocky horror as Scott, finding a hidden gem like Head Trauma makes all those endless hours in front of the television trying to sit through another derivative snoozefest completely worth it. "Now, I'm not about to call Head Trauma the next big cult classic or a stunning little indie masterpiece - but the flick is a whole lot more intelligent and compelling than I expected it to be. And yes, creepy." It seems that Lance Weiler has crafted an interesting little flick, despite his budgetary constraints. "All I can tell you is that, after a few moments on Act I skepticism, I was pretty darn wrapped up in poor Georgie's story. And for such an obviously low-budget feature, Head Trauma boasts an impressively wide array of quality components: the supporting actors, though raw and inexperienced, do a fine job throughout (particularly Jamal Mangan as the helpful kid from next door); the 'real life' narrative flows smoothly into the quietly effective 'nightmare moments,' although the director doesn't over-rely on the dream sequence gimmick; and the sound design (yep, the sound) is really quite excellent." With the inclusion of insightful extra material, Heretic Films has given Head Trauma a solid DVD release for a very solid independent horror film. And one that's easily worth adding to your collection.
Synapse Films is right at the top of my list of kick-ass independent genre DVD labels. Don May, Jr. and his cohorts have consistently been releasing some of the coolest horror discs around over the past few years. Bill Gibron takes a look at their latest release, Street Trash: Two-Disc Meltdown Edition, and finds it to be "one of 2006's finest DVD packages, period." Finally giving the fans what they've been clamoring for, Synapse gives the film a very worthy DVD upgrade from last year's bare bones release. As for the film itself, here's what Gibron has to say about it: "Street Trash is a true post-modern macabre masterpiece. It is a ferocious freak show of a film, a mercilessly madcap revolting romp that incorporates almost every viable element from the entire 80s ideal of horror. There are nods to Vietnam, hilarious necrophilia, homages to the homeless issue, alcoholism, old-fashioned slapstick and oh-so sophisticated incredibly dark comedy. For gorehounds, it's a grand slam, a movie with effects so amazing that they haven't been topped in almost 20 years. For intellectuals there are obvious underpinnings of social disorder, the treatment of the mentally ill and inner city decay. From its outrageous opening setpiece (a man literally melts into a toilet) to the final act fireworks which features the most unbelievable decapitation ever, this is a triumph of independent low budget moviemaking, the kind of inventive insanity you rarely see in today's super serious DIY camcorder scene...[It's] surrealism made by horror nerds..." What more, really, could you ask for in a horror flick? By checking out Street Trash, you'll not only be getting a chance to see a neat, oddball horror flick, but you'll also be supporting one of the coolest DVD studios around.
Bill Gibron's back again with a look at Mackinac Media's release of Frank Henenlotter's Brain Damage. Director of the oddball horror classic, Basket Case, Henenlotter took six years to find another film to direct. "Basket Case brought back the monster, made it a viable member of the macabre again, and proved that low budget indie fare could be just as effective as its big studio brethren. Six years later, Henenlotter delivered another drive-in classic with his take on addiction. But there was much more to Brain Damage than hallucinogens and horror. In this fine film, another classic fright icon was born – a creature as cunning as he was creepy...and clever." Unfortunately, this DVD package doesn't quite live up to the quality of the film itself. "Long available in slick special edition DVD versions, this latest repackaging of Frank Henenlotter's masterful follow-up to his already classic Basket Case is strictly for fans of the film. Glancing down to the tech specs section of this review will quickly answer all inquiries as to whether or not a trip to your local brick and mortar – or to eBay - is mandated. But it's safe to say that if you don't care about bonus features and added content, you'll be more than satisfied with this release, and the goofy, gory delight contained herein." It may be a shame that Mackinac Media couldn't have given Brain Damage a more respectable DVD release, but fans of the film will still be pleased with what's here.
Also this week, Ian Jane has a chance to check out the latest entry in Showtime's successful Masters of Horror series and, while he agrees that Tobe Hooper may never have matched his Texas Chainsaw Massacre potential with his subsequent projects, Dance of the Dead is an interesting little hour of horror programming. It's certainly not a terrific example of Hooper's abilities, but it is far from the worst horror film you could choose to watch. Ian says, in fact, that Dance of the Dead it's not even the worst episode of the Masters of Horror series. Here's what he has to say: "The biggest flaw with this entry is the camera work and the editing. Hooper admits to cutting things really, really fast for this project and there are scenes here that would give Russ Meyer an aneurysm if he were still around. While it seems that the intended effect was to bring us into the chaos of the events portrayed in the film, it doesn't work and instead it seems more like a pointless exercise in hyper-style over substance." Despite all that, Ian still decides that "there are some great ideas here and while the overkill with the camera work hurts things a bit, the pay off makes this one worthwhile." Anchor Bay has literally packed this disc with just as much extra material as all the previous Masters of Horror releases, so you can consider Dance of the Dead worth (at the very least) a solid rental.
Bill Gibron tackles the videogame-inside-a-movie film, Stay Alive and calls the lackluster film "the antithesis of the entire video game/film ideal – a movie that fails to live up to the expectations of either medium." There's no way I could do this stinker any justice, so I'll let Bill do the talking: "While it is not the worst horror movie ever made, Stay Alive is surely one of the most derivative. Granted, it tries to use the jargon and insider slant to bring the underground ethos of gaming to the mainstream, yet it is really nothing more than a standard "fantasy becomes reality" fright flick. It offers nothing but the most transparent characterization, pedestrian plotting, and kills that occur in the shadows, or mainly offscreen. For fans of the genre, there have been better (Silent Hill) and worse (House of the Dead) game-inspired efforts, but Stay Alive wants to be the first that turns the mocked up console and fully rendered graphics into significant story points. The only problem is, the concept is as old as Atari." With a critical beating as bad as the one Stay Alive has received, it'd be tough to recommend the film. If there are, however, a few curious fans of the subgenre, do yourself a favor and at least rent it first.
Ian Jane gets his hands on the NoShame Films 2-Disc Limited Special Edition release (there's also a single-disc version available, but you'll be missing out on all the cool packaging and extra material) of Dark Waters, and finds it to be a stellar DVD package. "While Mariano Baino's 1994 effort Dark Waters hasn't been impossible to find (it was available via New Yorker Video some years ago) it's one of those horror movies that hasn't quite found the audience that it probably deserves, which is a shame as it's a smart, creepy, and wonderfully made movie that will likely appeal to fans of Italian horror films." The excellent film finally gets its due in this two-disc release, hopefully allowing it to find an even larger audience. Here's what Ian has to say about Dark Waters: "A very strange film with a rather wandering narrative, Dark Waters is never the less a very well made exercise in atmosphere and suspense. The story moves a little slowly at first but once it's all set up the last third of the movie really picks up nicely and delivers some fantastic scares and memorable images. The art direction for the film is flawless and the cinematography and camerawork does an amazing job of capturing the remote beauty and dark locations of the Ukraine where the movie was shot. At times the film is quite reminiscent of Stuart Gordon's Dagon and there's very definitely a Lovecraftian vibe throughout this whole film but it still manages to do things quite differently and stand out on its own as a very original piece of work." Make room on your DVD shelf for Dark Waters in all its Limited Edition glory.
"Touted on the packaging as 'Singapore's first homegrown horror movie' The Maid, on the surface at least, appears to be yet another Asian horror movie about a long haired ghost with dark hair and black eyes – and it is – but it manages to provide some interesting and unique spins that set it above the crowd of Ring and Ju-On knock-offs like The Phone or Ju-Re – The Uncanny. Part of this is the location shooting, part of it is the story, and part of it is the performance from the female lead." And such is the fate of Tartan Video's latest release, The Maid, as the cover art might make it appear like just another J-Horror retread. Ian Jane, however, finds the film to be a surprisingly original, scary, and well-made Asian horror flick. "The Maid is an interesting and spooky horror movie that provides some unique cultural insight into the whole 'long haired ghost' genre." If that isn't a breath of fresh air for J-Horror, I don't know what is. Bravo, Tartan Video. Bravo.
DVD Savant makes his triumphant return to the pages of DVD Stalk with his review of K. Gordon Murray's Brainiac - a film that "[has] enjoyed a special playground notoriety as something to be whispered about in a few short statements - 'You should see this guy's tongue!' 'And he takes a bite from a plate of brains!'" As trashy and silly as the film may be, Savant has this to say about it: "Brainiac is delirious, sordid monster fun for 'undiscriminating audiences.' Its only practical function is to be able to say "I saw The Brainiac last night," just to see which of your friends wants to hear more and which suddenly hurry away whenever you approach. Then again, it's no trashier than any number of gory and cheap American movies of the 1950s, even some bearing studio logos." The latest release in Panik House's CasaNegra line, Brainiac comes to DVD with an excellent audio-visual presentation and some nice extra material as well. It's a beautiful release of a sorely underseen horror film, and one that genre fans will certainly want to seek out.
Finally, DVD Savant raves about The Black Pit of Dr. M, another title in Panik House's CasaNegra line: "The best film so far in CasaNegra's Mexican horror series is this 1958 shocker, the diabolical tale of a doctor who dares tread where Man Was Not Meant to Go. Director Fernando Méndez (Ladrón de cadáveres) keeps the contrived plot moving, and an attractive cast helps insure our interest. The story has a monster but relies for its main theme on a rather cruel cosmic punishment." It's another stellar DVD release for a film that clearly deserves a much larger audience. Any fan of Mexican horror should already have this disc in their collection. Everyone else should definitely check it out.
Neil Marshall's latest horror masterpiece, The Descent has finally descended upon US theaters and scared up a nice audience for Lionsgate. The frightening and claustrophobic film might just be the most finely crafted, and effective, horror film of the last ten years. The Descent (even with its truncated statewide conclusion) comes highly recommended and is a film that no horror fan can afford to miss.
Also currently in theaters is M. Night Shyamalan's latest film, Lady in the Water. Easily Shyamalan's worst opening weekend since he hit it big with The Sixth Sense, this "bedtime story" not only caused his breakup with Disney, but has also provided the director with the harshest reviews of his career (yeah, even worse than the ones he received for The Village). With a complex (and often times downright silly) storyline, Lady in the Water has failed to catch to connect with audiences so far, and may go on to become Shyamalan's least successful film. Horror or not, there are certainly some genre elements in the film and it might be worth checking out if for nothing more than the lack of horror films currently in theaters.
If you're looking for a genre-related flick that the whole family can enjoy, however, there is one more film currently in the cineplex: Monster House. The animated film about a house that's really a living, breathing monster has scored some excellent reviews and is doing well enough at the box office to call it a hit. So load up the kids and introduce them to your favorite genre at an early age with the innovative and clever Monster House.
Oh, and lest I forget, unless you're planning on hitting the theaters just to see the gorgeous Kristen Bell, don't even bother wasting your money on Pulse. With all its hiccups along the way to finally hitting the big screen, the flick was doomed from the start. If you're that desperate to gaze at the beauty of Ms. Bell, do yourself a favor and watch her excellent TV series Veronica Mars.
I've probably caught Tales from the Darkside: The Movie on television about a thousand times or so since I was a youngster, and every single time I can't help but watch it. The film is, admittedly, not really all that good. It pales in comparison to the other George Romero/Stephen King anthology films (Creepshow and Creepshow 2) and never really finds a groove over the course of its three stories, but I'll be damned if Tales from the Darkside: The Movie isn't an addicting little piece of horror cinema. The effects are cheesy. The acting is subpar (even for some of the more respectable actors in the cast). The scripts are bland. Hell, even the individual titles are pretty horrendous. What the film lacks in quality, however, it easily makes up for in its ability to keep you glued to the screen. Just seeing what becomes of poor David Johansen (in the Cat From Hell segment) and watching that creepy gargoyle (in the Lover's Row segment) fly around is enough to keep me from changing the channel. Tales from the Darkside: The Movie is pure late-night TV cheese. It's completely silly, totally schmaltzy, and barely original; all the things we horror fans hope for in an inept (but lovable) midnight treat.
A series that, unfortunately, went right down the tubes with its lackluster second sequel, Victor Salva's Jeepers Creepers was a breath of fresh (and pretty darn original) air for the horror genre in 2001. The film took your typical stranded-in-the-middle-of-nowhere plot and turns it into an intriguing story about a brother and sister who discover a legend (and a whole new horror icon in the process) and must try to salvage, at least, their own lives. Salva's film is a surprisingly brave entry into a genre that, at the time, was churning out retread after retread of boring, manipulative sequels and watered-down horror. Jeepers Creepers, however, used its gore at just the right moments, won its scares with the element of surprise (and some genuine creepiness), and kept you guessing until the very end. And it's at just that moment, near the conclusion of the film, when Salva seems to wink back at the audience and take the film to a place that most low-budget horror upstarts wouldn't have been able to go. Salva's ending is what originally won me over about his film. Jeepers Creepers is a fun ride throughout, but that last little wrinkle made me a true fan of the film. It's a creative and original little film that deserves to be seen, and adored, by a wider legion of horror fans. It's just a shame Salva forgot all about originality when he decided to make Jeepers Creepers 2.
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