The Tenement is the latest from microbudget auteur Glen Baisley and the first of his films to net a wide release on home video. His shot-on-video movies take place in the same world, the sleepy little hamlet of Fairview Falls. The Tenement revolves around...surprise!...a tenement where, for the past few decades, its residents have been butchered, mauled, eaten, and hacked apart. Each of the four main stories tackles a different flavor of horror, beginning with a slasher set in 1980, appopriately enough. "Fade to Black" opens with a couple necking in the woods, which in this sort of movie means they're certain to lead long, happy, productive lives. The ritualistic slaying that follows isn't actually happening, though -- it's just a scene from another in a long line of horror movies from producer Winston Korman (Fango editor Michael Gingold). Ethan Fernier is Korman's biggest fan, stumbling onto a chance to audition for his latest flick when delivering an order of black roses to the production offices. Um, he doesn't get the part. Really doesn't get the part. Unhinged by his demanding bedridden mother and the derisive laughter of his heroes, Ethan decides if he can't play a perpetually silent masked murderer, becoming one would be the next best thing.
"The Sound of Silence" is about Sarah, a mute who spends almost every waking moment dancing with an unseen partner. Her neighbor Henry, no longer content with just leering at her from afar, seizes an opportunity to get up close and way, way too personal. As Sarah is raped and tormented, Henry starts to suspect they aren't alone, culminating in some supernaturally surreal moments. Think The Outer Limits meets I Spit on Your Grave. The third story, "Full Moon Rising", is my favorite of the bunch. Jimmy is a shut-in who rarely leaves his apartment except to grudgingly go to group therapy. After his first session, he's attacked by some sort of animal. His wounds start healing pretty quickly, he develops a taste for raw ground chuck, and...wow, is that a hair on his chest? Jimmy's convinced he's becoming a werewolf, and he starts to dress the part with a body count to match. The final segment is a straightahead serial killer tale about a cab driver who butchers his fares, but his most recent customer is a little too kindred a spirit.
I really got a kick out of The Tenement. I don't mean that in a condescending "oh, for a no-budget shot-on-video flick, it's okay, I guess" way, but that it hits all the notes it tries to make. There isn't a lot of on-screen gore, but when The Tenement tried to be brutal, I winced. Its stabs at humor, particularly "Full Moon Rising", frequently made me laugh, and there really isn't any unintentional comedy to be found. It's clever and works well within the boundaries of a non-existent budget. Because it doesn't try to be a special effects showcase drenched in splatter and desktop PC-grade CGI, those sorts of limitations rarely distract, and the moments with make-up are generally pretty effective. The weakest point is the acting. Pretty much everyone in the movie is teetering on the brink of sanity, and the cast doesn't consistently pull it off. I don't think the spotty acting drags the movie down much, and I was able to look past most of it, but that impacts the movie more negatively than the limited production values. Also, most anthologies have at least one clunker, and in The Tenement, it'd probably be the last segment. It's not so much that "The Taxi Driver" is bad -- it's just short and is much more straightforward than the quirkier bits that precede it.
One of the things The Tenement does particularly well is play with the audience's expectations. The first story is about an obsessed horror nut with a demanding mother that spends most of the segment conveniently just out of the frame. I waited and waited for the inevitable homage that was so obviously being telegraphed, but...I was wrong. I was also pretty certain it would end on the same note as Paul Verhoeven's contribution to HBO's anthology series, The Hitchhiker, which was also about the production of an indie slasher flick and the backlash from complaints about shoddy acting. Again, nope. I also thought at first that "Full Moon Rising" was going to be a standard werewolf tale with some kind of twist, but that completely shattered my expectations. Although all of the stories in The Tenement toss out some level of humor, "Full Moon Rising" sustains it the longest. The basic premise -- a whackjob who decides he's a werewolf, dresses up in a fright mask bought from Party City with some...adjustments made to the rubber gloves, and kills everyone in sight -- is particularly clever. Any horror flick that pays homage to Warner animation is alright in my book, and my absolute favorite moment in the entire movie is when Jimmy looks longingly at his pal with an overlaid image of a steak. Michael Gingold also has some fun quipping about low-budgets and Fangoria in his memorable turn on-screen. The Tenement as a whole manages to strike a balance where it doesn't take itself too seriously, but it's not constantly winking at the audience either. It's more entertaining than a lot of genre movies with exponentially larger budgets, and Baisley and distributor Brain Damage Films have assembled an impressively comprehensive release on DVD.
Video: This DVD of The Tenement is full-frame, the way it was shot and intended to be seen. Because of the low-rent photography, the image quality isn't exactly demo-worthy. The more dimly-lit sequences suffer the most. Without the usual massive array of lights, it infrequently becomes too dark to be able to clearly see what's going on. There are a couple of minor but noticeable video blips, and my particular copy briefly sputtered digitally just after the 62 minute mark. Some noise and aliasing also creep in. For the most part, though, it looks like someone piped a prosumer-grade DV camera directly into my television, which is about as good as can be hoped for, considering.
Audio: The Dolby Digital stereo audio wasn't recorded under the most ideal conditions either, varying greatly depending on the particular shot. It's almost monaural aside from the music added in post, and the dialogue sounds somewhat different from scene to scene, and sometimes, depending on how conversations are cut together, even shot to shot. Ethan in the flower shop is one example where things sound particularly disparate, and dialogue in some of the more echo-riddled locations can be tough to fully discern. There's also some underlying background noise. Like the visuals, there are some inherent limitations, and The Tenement is pretty much how I'd expect it to sound. Aside from the commentary, there are no other audio options...no dubs, subtitles, or closed captions.
Supplements: The Tenement is the kind of DVD that makes most other special editions curl up in the fetal position and weep. There are several hours of extras, beginning with a pair of photo galleries. The first cycles through a bunch of on-set stills, each onscreen for around five seconds a pop, running just under five minutes total. Lotsa gore close-ups and some assorted goofin' around. The second photo gallery has Sal Sirchia, the Mayor of Rock and Roll, playing a live acoustic version of "Can't Love Without You" from the movie, with some stills (a handful duplicated from the other gallery) cycling underneath for a few minutes. One thing that's kinda notable about these shots is how neat some of the gore really looks, which I didn't think translated as well to the movie itself.
The audio commentary piles writer/director/producer Glen Baisley in a room with cast members Diana Baisley, Michael Gingold, Mike Lane, Jude Pucillo, and John Sudol. I'm usually a fan of commentaries with a large group of people, and The Tenement is a clear example why. There's a non-stop flow of discussion that tackles pretty much every conceivable angle -- technical details, random on-set mishaps, obstacles that stood in the way of producing a movie with this slim a budget, inspirations behind some of the segments... There are too many highlights to scribble them all down, but a few of 'em include trying to shoot around stitches from recent breast augmentation surgery, swiping a fire from Malcolm X for a completely unrelated Super 8 project, Michael Gingold explaining about seemingly tearing the single rarest issue of Fangoria in half, painstakingly spraypainting roses, trying to force-feed an actor raw meat, Oz carryovers, and the elderly Ethan putting in appearances in a Queensryche video and on-stage with Eminem. They also spend a lot of time pointing out mistakes, homages, and constantly lobbing out plugs for merchandise at lightanddark.net, even using a nekkid actress as a selling point. Really good commentary and definitely worth a listen.
"The World of Light and Dark" is around a minute long, very briefly discussing the mindset behind Light & Dark Productions and their upcoming Sins of the Father, which features a bunch of the same characters yet stands on its own. A special effects featurette, "The Anatomy of Horror: Making of A Mask", spends a little over six minutes delving into the sculpture and application of the latex mask Michael Gingold has on after being whacked in the head with a shovel. Also included is some footage from Light & Dark's publicity tour, including some William Castle-style ballyhoo at the movie's premiere and the cast 'n crew hanging out with a bunch of genre celebs at the Chiller show, bringing an unsuspecting kid to bawl at one point. It closes with the trailer and Jude Pucillo thanking viewers for poring through the extras.
There's also a bunch of additional footage. The "Winston Korman Movie Marathon" runs around sixteen minutes, opening with an introduction by Winston's brother (also played by Michael Gingold), followed by the Chiller animation (!!!). It's the two slasher shorts excerpted in "Fade to Black" -- Jack and Jill and No Trespassing -- presented in their entirety. The deleted scenes, the first chunk running around five minutes, are each introduced by Glen Baisley. They include an explanation of a mysterious character from the first story, licking a severed head, a nod to a character from Fear of the Dark, and a couple of bits of additional dialogue. An alternate opening was cut for pacing, using a montage of newspaper clippings to give a better sense of how much carnage there's been over the years. There's also a pair of alternate endings, one with a quickly-squicked-out prospective tenant and the other with a raspberry-stained raid by the cops. Upping the T&A quotient a bit are four minutes of "Uncut Dancing Girls", which is...pretty aptly-titled. The last stripper has the least convincing fake boobs ever. Finally, there are six and a half minutes of bloopers, mostly just the cast goofing around, singing lesser-known Michael Jackson songs, discussing vomit consistency...that sorta thing.
Rounding out the extras are a bunch of trailers for other Brain Damage Films releases -- The Tenement, Invitation, Vulture's Eye, Hellbound, Vampire Sisters, Strange Things Happen at Sundown, Goregoyles, GOTH, Hollywood Vampyr, Death Factory, Hell's Highway, and Terror Toons. The Tenement comes packaged in a keepcase with no insert. The movie runs just under two hours and is divided into twelve chapters, and the disc includes a set of static 4x3 menus with animated scene selections.
Conclusion: Viewers with an appreciation for low-budget horror should absolutely give The Tenement a look. It's a solid genre flick, if expectedly rough around the edges, and there are enough quality extras to keep most people occupied for hours on end. Recommended.
Quick Warning: The Tenement played fine on my set-top Toshiba SD-3109, but on my DVD-ROM (a 16X Lite-On running PowerDVD), the disc would continually backtrack chapters. As soon as chapter 3 ended, for instance, instead of moving to chapter 4, it would repeat chapter 3. It did this for all 12 chapter stops. This may be some obscure issue that only affects a small number of setups, but it is worth a mention for readers who watch DVDs primarily on their computers.
Related Links: Light & Dark Productions has a section on their site dedicated to The Tenement, including some Quicktime clips from the movie.