These past weeks have seen a small boon of interesting foreign genre films being released in the States by distributor Lionsgate. Included in their recent DVD schedule have been the Belgian sci-fi thriller Artifacts and the Australian crime drama Restraint. And now Lionsgate brings this 3 disc curiosity - 6 Films to Keep You Awake, a collection of contemporary Spanish horror movies that should be on any fright flick fan's "to watch" list.
The six movies arrive on 3 double-sided DVDs, with one film on each side of a disc. The collection contains. . .
The Blame [referred to as Blame in the package art] (***1/2)
The collection begins with this character-driven rumination on abortion. The Blame follows the plight of Gloria, a young single mother and nurse facing tough times. She agrees to move in with a gynecologist, Ana, who performs first trimester abortions in a home office. Ana is eager to help out the impoverished mother and daughter - especially since she has romantic feelings for Ana and clearly desires the threesome become a family. Gloria doesn't return Ana's affections, however, and ends up becoming pregnant again by a man who doesn't seem to care much for her. Ana convinces Gloria to have an abortion, and she reluctantly agrees. Afterward, all sorts of creepy things begin happening - starting with the disappearance of Gloria's fetus.
The Blame, despite its macabre overtones, is really a character study of someone imperfect who is forced to live with the consequences of the difficult decisions she has to make. Gloria is an interesting character, and one who has to make hard compromises to ensure the welfare of herself and her six-year-old daughter. Much of the horror in this film is effective and built upon plot and atmosphere rather than gore - although a couple scenes involving abortions may be unsettling, especially for those already morally uncomfortable about the procedure. The ending is okay if a little obvious - although certain plot points and characters, especially Ana and Gloria's neighbors, seem neglected in the resolution of the film. Overall, though, the film is very creepy and definitely worth a look.
The second film in this collection, Spectre, is another character-driven study. In it, Tomas, a man in his 60s, returns to his home village after 44 years, driven by a tarot card he received depicting two lovers. Tomas's wife recently died, but what seems to obsess him is the memory of a woman named Moira. Much of the film involves flashbacks to a 16-year-old Tomas and how the young man falls for the older Moira, a woman who lives on her own in a rather desolate area near the village. The townsfolk, especially the women, don't like Moira much at all - with claims of promiscuity and witchcraft on Moira's part running rampant in the community.
Spectre is a beautifully filmed romance laden with gothic undertones. Moira is a haunting character, and her development over the course of the film adds to the mystery of who she is (it's kind of tough talking about this movie without spoiling it). The acting is very good, and the muted color schemes work with the arid landscapes to produce a visually satisfying look. This film, like The Blame, is very creepy without resorting to shock gore scares. The ending is clever and provides a satisfying resolution. All in all, Spectre is a very enjoyable film.
A Real Friend (***)
A Real Friend starts off disc two of this collection. In it, schoolgirl Estrella lives with her mother (a single nurse similar to The Blame's lead character) in a secured apartment complex. Estrella is quite precocious, but she has difficulty making friends at school. She spends her time watching horror movies and grisly news reports, and reading horror fiction. Several characters from these texts seem to come to life for her, including Leatherface and Nosferatu. She's been told her father's dead, but someone she refers to as The Vampire mysteriously shows up from time to time on a motorcycle, and this individual may be connected to her father.
A Real Friend has moments of inspiration - especially several clever shots where Estrella's imaginary(?) monster friends interact in her real world. And, Estrella herself is an interesting character, one whom horror film fans will certainly relate to. However, the story itself lags at times, and the movie is sideswiped by a tacky Twilight Zone-style ending that completely deconstructs the film's narrative. I think I would have liked the movie more had it not been for the final scene of the movie. A Real Friend is worth watching, but it's arguably the weakest of these six films.
A Christmas Tale (****)
By far the most colorful and energetic film in this collection, A Christmas Tale follows the exploits of a gang of 12-year-olds who come upon a body in a pit in the woods. They discover the woman, dressed in a Santa costume, is still alive - so they do the "right" thing and go to the police. However, the police dispatcher ignores the kids, one of whom catches sight of a fax of a woman wanted for the theft of $2,000,000. Realizing they have a burglar with a lot of money, the kids decide to no longer do the "right" thing, torturing the woman for days in order to find out where the money is hidden. Two of the twelve-year-olds, inspired by an insipid movie about zombies, decide to mimic a zombie ritual above the dying woman - and inevitably, calamity ensues.
A Christmas Tale is an outrageously fun, tongue-in-cheek romp that most people would enjoy - especially those of us who were children during the 1980s. The kids in this flick feel like a cross between Stephen King's gang in The Body (a.k.a Stand By Me) and the precocious pre-teens in Explorers, and man are they cruel to that bank robber! '80s references abound, from Karate Kid to the classic Simon electronic game. At one point, one of the kids can even be seen reading the old DC comics version of the V series. A cat-and-mouse routine in an abandoned amusement park between the kids and the zombie-fied bank robber are well-filmed, although the sequence runs a little too long. Still, A Christmas Tale is a really good film.
The Baby's Room (***1/2)
Side one of disc three has The Baby's Room, a competently made thriller that treads familiar territory in haunted house films, but does so well. In it, Juan and Sonia, parents of a newborn, move into a large old home that they got really cheap (sound familiar, Amityville Horror fans?). Inevitably, they begin to hear - and see - a spectre around their baby at night through monitors. Juan becomes paranoid and obsessive about solving the mystery of the home, similar to Kevin Bacon's character in the very good fright flick A Stir of Echoes. Juan's grip on reality seems to unravel as he discovers the secrets of the old home.
The Baby's Room is probably the most unsurprising movie in this collection as it follows standard haunted house clichés. A sprinkle of science fiction (alternate realities) and humor (a scene between the sportswriter Juan and his editor involving flowers was a nice comedic break) help to keep things lively. That and the performances are pretty good. The Baby's Room would have been more effective, however, if it weren't for an opening scene that basically reveals what's happening in the house, undercutting the mystery of the movie.
To Let (***1/2)
The final film in this set is To Let. Directed by Jaume Balaguero (who also helmed the underappreciated English language film Darkness starring Anna Paquin), this is the only movie of the 6 Films to Keep You Awake series that would fall squarely into the "torture porn" genre. Like Saw and Hostel, To Let is a grisly exercise in bleakness and violence. In it, a young couple expecting their first child answers an ad for a large apartment. They discover a bit too late that the real estate agent is actually obsessed with them and wants to keep them in the rundown tenement forever. It seems she's abducted several other people as well, holding them hostage. What follows is a bloody cat-and-mouse routine as the prisoners try to escape.
In some ways, To Let doesn't feel like it belongs with the other films in this series considering its lack of spectral or fantastical elements. On its own, though, this is one of the better and tenser "torture porn" films I've seen in a while, with good performances and a creepy setting. The characters do some very stupid things over the course of the movie, but as is often the case, To Let wouldn't be much of a horror movie if people did sensible things early on.
All six movies are presented in 16x9 anamorphic widescreen. The films tend to have muted color schemes, but details are sharp. Minor artifacts and video noise are apparent - with Spectre perhaps faring the worst out of the bunch.
All six movies have solid Dolby Digital 5.1 audio presentations. The issue here is that they are the original Spanish dialogue tracks - there are no English dubs available. I have no problem with subtitles, but I know some filmgoers prefer not to read them. So, if you're one of those people, 6 Films to Keep You Awake probably isn't for you.
English and Spanish subtitles are available for all the movies (and the extras are subtitled too). Speaking of which . . .
Each of the 6 Films to Keep You Awake has a corresponding "Making Of" featurette. They're interesting and allow the writers, directors, and actors to discuss their films. Though presented in widescreen, all are not anamorphic. The run times for these featurettes are Making of The Blame (15:24), Making of Spectre (21:08), Making of A Real Friend (18:03), Making of A Christmas Tale (22:27), Making of The Baby's Room (16:40), and Making of To Let (19:09).
Strangely, the trailer for Beneath Still Waters shows up before every film in this collection. You would think, given their large stable of genre films, that Lionsgate would want to use this opportunity to advertise several of them - or at least switch up trailers on the different movies in this set. But, that's not the case. If seeing the trailer six times isn't enough, it's also available through an Also from Lionsgate link in the Special Features sub-menu of each film.
Think of 6 Films to Keep You Awake as Spain's version of Showtime's Masters of Horror series. All 6 movies in the collection are successful to varying degrees and worth seeing. Highly recommended.