There is probably no better match between medium and genre than horror and the short film. Most memorable fright flicks are not wall-to-wall chills and thrills, (well, some are - more on this some other time) but a hodgepodge of exposition and excess, linked by several mini-moment set pieces of shock. Psycho is a perfect example of this philosophy. The shower scene, the killing of Arbogast, and Mrs. Bates final "revelation" are the major macabre sequences that sell the movie. They would work (perhaps not as well, though) without the narrative linking them together. But Hitchcock's Freudian field day would sure be deadly dull without them. The Exorcist is another example of a fairly straightforward domestic drama interspersed with some of the most sensational, horrifying moments in movie history. Few people remember the divorce dynamic to the film. But no one looks at a crucifix or a can of pea soup the same way after its sinister segments.
Fear can be measured out in small packages and still be successful. So when Fangoria, the premier magazine of horror and gore, announced a short film contest, the concept seemed like genius. Many major figures in the field of fright (Sam Raimi, Clive Barker) got their start making shorts and, if handled properly, the results could be not only experimental and inventive, but very strange and sinister. With a very successful first volume now under their belt, Koch Vision and the magazine unveil Fangoria Blood Drive II. Applying the exact same formula as the last time around, we get the promise of fresh and/or fierce views of fright "for the fans, by the fans". This does not mean that every installment offered here is an apple of gold. Indeed, what Fangoria Blood Drive II showcases is that, when it comes to tales from the crypt, not every new filmmaker is a grand gravedigger. Some are equally as amateurish as the individuals ridiculed for their mediocre mainstream scary moviemaking.
Made up of eight mini-movies this time, Fangoria Blood Drive II is a DVD compendium of the winners from the horror magazine's second "stab" at their short film contest. Hosted by the incredibly annoying Mistress Juliya (on the menu screens) and offered in a 'play all', or individual installment method of viewing, the subject matter here ranges from the standard (serial killers, ghosts) to the downright odd (individual insanity). Each short is dealt with separately so as to highlight its positive and negative aspects. We begin with:
We All Fall Down
Directed by Jake Kennedy
Plot: Four friends accidentally kill a young girl and hide her body. Five years later they have to deal with the consequences.
It's one of the oldest horror clichés in the book of the baneful - a group of people having to deal with an accidental death from their past. But Jake Kennedy finds an inventive way of resurrecting the golden oldie, removing most of the formula from this fine foray into fright. Painted in very professional filmmaking strokes and utilizing a combination of Grudge-like spookiness and amazing atmosphere, this director comes up with an amazing experiment in dread. There are substantial scares, as well as some very disturbing imagery. Kennedy is in complete control the entire time, never letting elements wander over into the excessive or the pointless. The ending is a little abrupt, and there is not much in the way of gore, but this is still a sensational throwback to an era when horror didn't have to be messy, just mesmerizing - and Kennedy delivers. Score: 4 out of 5
The Gibbering Horror of Howard Ghormley
Directed by Steve Daniels
Plot: A man finds himself mysterious drawn to an old house. While he can't see who's inside, someone keeps slipping him unsettling messages under the door.
Steve Daniels needs to be praised for having the guts to avoid gratuity and grue. Instead, he has delivered up a strange and surreal slice of psychological terror. This is really not a horror film in the traditional sense - it is more a dissertation on mental illness and the perspective of the insane. There is some incredible camerawork here, an effective repetition of key shots and a marvelous use of shadows and darkness. The creepy ambiance really helps push us past some of the more perplexing elements in the plot, and the lead performance is wonderfully confused and concerned. This is a very interesting idea, and while one could easily see it being expanded even further, what Daniels has accomplished here is just remarkable. Score: 3.5 out of 5
Means to an End
Directed by Jake Hamilton and Paul Solet
Plot: Two desperate F/X artists are eager to break into the film business. Unfortunately, they take their "keep it real" ideal a little too far.
As a rule, unless your name is Sam Raimi, comedy and horror do not mix. Most filmmakers don't have the chutzpah to combine terror with ribtickling, usually skimping on both. Or worse, they assume that light comic moments like those found in their favorite sketch comedy show work wonderfully well within a completely gratuitous gore setting. Luckily, Hamilton and Solet are the grand exception, not the miserable maxim when it comes to cleverness and carnage. There is a joy and an eagerness to entertain in this over the top spoof/satire and no target is safe - not the horror geek, the bad b-movie maker, or the seedy producer who has nothing better to do than whack-off to the tabloids. Breezy, brave and filled with the kind of butchery us blood lovers crave, this is an inventive and interesting part of the collection. Its only flaw is its length. It could have gone on a lot longer and still been a great deal of frenzied fun. Score: 4 out of 5.
Directed by Adam Barnick
Plot: A man finds himself strapped to an operating table, as an eyeless doctor begins a surreal procedure involving drugs and the draining of bodily fluids.
It is really hard to tell what Adam Barnick was up to with this very minor bit of macabre. More future slop than shock, this seems to be nothing more than a rather derivative test of tone and delivery. There is very little dialogue, nothing much is explained, and we are left with a great deal of unanswered questions once the film is over. In reality, this appears to be a visual opus meant to focus on the filmmaker's way with camera and setting. Sadly, neither of these aspects are that interesting either. You really have to have a special visual acumen to sell something that is so vague and ambiguous as this demented dreamscape and its devilish doctoring. Barnick is not quite up to the challenge yet, and Mainstream suffers as a result. Score: 2 out of 5.
Directed by B.C. Furtney
Plot: A lonely guy calls a phone sex line, and gets a little more than he bargained for when he hooks up with a really weird woman on the other end.
Okay, this is just plain awful. It is not funny. It is not sexy. It is not interesting and it fails to make even the slightest of perceptible points. Like a 10 second joke with a 10 minute punchline, the gag here (a woman gets off in a very kitchen-appliance friendly manner ) is weak and silly. And since the last four minutes of this overdone drivel is spent in reaction to her freaked out fetish, our patience is tried over and over again. There is no bang for our buck here - the violence is minor at best - and the tone is terribly confused (is it funny? Frightening? Foolish?). This may have read like a good idea, and maybe even filmed as one, but presented over seven sleep-inducing minutes, this jaundiced joke just doesn't work. Score: 1 out of 5
The Journal of Edmond Deyers
Directed by William Rot
Color and B&W/Widescreen
Plot: Two police officers are convinced that a recent killing is the work of a serial killer that's been dead for over a decade.
Okay kiddies, here's another lesson to learn from the Fangoria Blood Drive. Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery, especially when you are picking on a first time filmmaker's overwhelmingly problematic magnum opus. Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses had its moments, but it had its troubles as well, and it appears Mr. Rot has decided to copy the crap, not the cream. From a dread-locked killer who even resembles the former White Zombie frontman to a strangely off-kilter style that employs too many visual and oral tics, this is not so much a bad entry as very, very disappointing try. Rot has some interesting compositional and framing ideas, and his technical trickery can be effective in smallish doses. But seven minutes is not long enough to cover a subject of this scope, and with a soundtrack that turns up the nu-metal and down the dialogue, we have a really hard time understanding what's going on - and why we should care. Score: 2 out of 5
Directed by Brad Palmer
Plot: A doctor during the Civil War is haunted by the memories of the men he has operated on, as well as the lives he could not save.
More psychological than scary, this peculiar period piece shows a lot of promise on the part of director Palmer. Mixing subtlety with substantial bloodletting (a couple of amputations here are decidedly nasty) and an authentic feeling of the time period, what could have been a Civil War recreationist's nightmare instead becomes a quiet and convincing character study. While it does seem slight (Palmer is only telling one small story here, and once we learn what is happening, the overall effectiveness slowly starts to fade) this is still a nicely nuanced entry. Score: 3 out of 5
Directed by Erik A. Candiani
Color/ Full Frame
Plot: A despondent office worker thinks his professional life is Hell. Little does he know how potentially right he really is.
Ending on a substantial high note, Working Stiff is a wonderful Tales from the Crypt-type homage from director Candiani. Using a mixture of live action and animation (comic book panels straight out the EC design help link our scenes together and even further the narrative drive) and making the most of its minimal budget, we get a real rarity in the amateur moviemaking arena - a filmmaker with a distinct vision. From the mundane grays of the cubicle world to the terrifically tactile underworld universe of the "CEO", there is a lot to like about the mixture of mind games and anti-corporate venting. About the only minor flaw this film has is its ending. Certainly it comes straight out of the typical twists we love about the whole Tales idea of storytelling, but it's just not strong enough here. We want to know what's going on, but it seems that particular information is not high on Candiani's list of important cinematic issues. Too bad, because this is the best film on the set - that is, until the ending brings it back down to entertainment Earth. Score: 4 out of 5
Fangoria Blood Drive II is a far more consistent set of fright films than the first set. Unlike that initial attempt in championing fan filmmaking, we don't have to suffer through singing zombies or pointless personal mutilation. Not everything is monsters and merriment, and this second set doesn't feature a single film as effective as Shadows of the Dead or Inside. The level of professionalism has increased ten fold and the use of tone and style is greatly improved. And with three films here earning 4 out of 5 stars - Working Stiff, Means to an End and We All Fall Down - and one a close second (The Gibbering Horror of Howard Ghormley), Fangoria appears to have found the right formula for picking out peerless examples of terror.
The most misguided factor of this entire set, however, is the horny teenage boy bullspit proffered in the gratuitous guise of 'someone' called Mistress Juliya. No offense to the little lady, but that "ain't I a vampy vixen" spiel went out with the Apple IIe and Jazzercise. She is so desperate to tap into the glorified geek mode of horror film fandom (like there are NO other kind of fright fans) that she slips into stupid slang like "killer" (which she pronounces like a valley girl gone to the Goth Galleria) and "totally". Unlike Rob Zombie's clever, cryptic quips that seemed both measured and slightly amusing, this pleather clad oy-boy-toy is just adolescent angst fodder running at the mouth, and her presence is very irritating on this DVD.
Because of the divergent nature of the disc (eight different films, eight divergent filmmakers) the visual presentation of this title is equally scattershot. Quality wise, most of the "movies" have good-to-excellent image transfers - We All Fall Down and Working Stiff being two sublime examples. Others, like The Gibbering Horror of Howard Ghormley have been remastered within an inch of their life. The blacks in said production are so over-processed that they "shimmer" in a couple of spots. With technology increasing every day, these young guns are able to create cinematic canvases that their no-budget brethren of just a few years ago would have murdered to manage. Even compared to the previous edition, the image quality here is a substantial step up.
One of the keys to successful mood and atmosphere in a horror film is the use of sound, and all the mini-movies here apply this maxim expertly. Even The Journal of Edmund Deyers finds a way to make its 'Nine Inch Marilyn Manson Slipknot' approach professional and evocative. The overall disc is offered in a Dolby Digital Stereo mix that captures the voices and the ambiance perfectly. Only Disposer suffers from some dialogue drop out, as the use of a phone receiver to channel conversation is a bad idea, no matter what filmic format you are using.
Last time it was Clive Barker and Stan Winston who walked us through their weird and wonderful worlds. This time, it's KNB F/X Studios and Bruce Campbell who get the bonus feature call. Campbell's 15 minute interview is a stitch, as the no holds barred B-movie master riffs on any and all topics, from overweight cats to his love of lavender (which he admits is rather "wussy"). Touching on everything from his books to the Evil Dead films, this is a wonderful look at an equally engaging guy. Even better is the KNB featurette, hosted by Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger. Equally as genial as Campbell and filled with their own intriguing anecdotes about 17 years in the moviemaking biz, we get a nice overview of their oeuvre, as well as a tour of their shop. The sound is a little shaky (it seems distorted and tinny) but we don't miss a single sensational beat. Whether they are discussing Kill Bill, Land of the Dead or the upcoming Chronicles of Narina, they are informative and engaging. Besides, where else would you get a chance to see a selection of "dead' bodies for rent - each encased in their own corporate baggie for easy transport.
Another added element that makes this package different than the previous Fangoria presentation is the optional commentary track. The bad news here though is that its members of the Fangoria Blood Drive production staff (Tim Hinsley and Tony Timpone) discussing the films, not the directors themselves. Since they don't really know how the movies were made, they can't offer any production tips or backstory. Instead, they spend a lot of time lamenting the number of zombie and serial killer entries they have to wade through to get to this so-called crop cream. They also give their opinion on each film, and discuss the factors that earned each entry a place on the DVD (future Blood Drive submitters take note!). While not the worst alternate audio track ever offered, it certainly does little to supplement the movies as part of the collection.
Sequels usually suffer from a stifling sense of sameness. The tired old tenet of "been there, done that" comes crawling back into the brainpan and individuals enamored with the first production almost always feel that the redux pales in comparison. Luckily, Fangoria Blood Drive II is better than the original offering. It's more consistent and creative, and features some fine filmmakers working at the highest levels of outsider cinema. Sure, there are a couple of duds here, and no one said that these mini-movies will challenge mainstream macabre for a place in the pantheon of horror. But as a starting point for some promising careers, as well as a chance to see real innovation in the usually routine world of the creature feature, you couldn't ask for a better presentation. The issues with Mistress Juliya and the commentary aside, this is an overall improvement over the original Blood Drive disc, and bodes well for future editions of the series. Scariness and the short film do work well together. It is something that this compendium of creepshows proves over and over again.
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