Turns out...? Trotting out to the cemetery in the dead of night, reading a finger-wagglingly spooky poem, and dancing to rockabilly on a bunch of murdering psychopaths' graves isn't all that hot an idea. Gulp! So now
Harris (Dominic Purcell), his batshit crazy stalker ex-girlfriend Kira (Josie Maran), and their college buddy Sid (Marcus Thomas) are in the crosshairs of an axe-murdering piano teacher, a sadomasochistic judge, and a pint-sized pyromaniac. Their vengeful spirits are on the attack until the three of 'em are resting in pieces...or till the next full moon, whichever happens first. They aren't in it alone, at least. Harris' way-too-loyal wife Allison (Clare Kramer), an extremely French...how you say, parapsycholgeeeest? named Vincent Cochet (Tchéky Karyo), and his T.A. or whatever Frances Culpepper (Megahn Perry) are standing right there with 'em to the bitter end. The intensity of the attacks amp up the closer it gets to that final, fatal full moon, and as plans go, sticking together in a stately old manor doesn't seem like a bad one. I mean, solidarity! Banding together to fend off the ghosties! The undead, meanwhile, just look at this as one-stop shopping. Cue horror sting!
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One of the biggest reasons I fished The Gravedancers out of DVD Talk's stack of stuff to review is director Mike Mendez. Before taking the reins on The Gravedancers, he'd helmed The Convent, in the running as one of my all-time splatter-comedy/action flicks and capturing everything I loved so much about the manic, unhinged splatterfests I grew up with in the '80s. The Gravedancers is a different flavor of genre-mash, trying to meld quieter, more atmospheric haunted house stories with, um, Evil Dead II. It's kind of an oil and water thing. The Gravedancers is bogged down by long, long stretches of nothing. Uninteresting characters slowly trudge around doing uninteresting things, and every once in a while, they'll hear a spooky voice or some plinking piano keys. The first kill comes a minute or two in, but after that, it's literally 45 minutes...half the movie...until anything even a little bit visceral happens again. The imagination and spastic energy of The Convent are sorely missed, making way for genre tropes like a hissing cat, doors mysteriously opening and closing out-of-frame, scratchy voices on the phone, porn sounds coming from ::gasp!:: what turns out to be an empty room, the old turn-around-the-corner-and-there's-your-pal jump scare...I mean, I thought the only thing missing was a cat suddenly jumping in front of the camera, but it turns out that was waiting for me in the deleted scenes. The scares for so much of the movie are limp, lifeless, and so blatantly telegraphed that they fail to get any reaction whatsoever. What's supposed to be a playful sense of humor consists of stuff like a douche holding up his three middle fingers and saying "read between the lines". Did I stumble back into 8th grade or something? By the time the third act slogs around and things actually start happening, The Gravedancers shifts gears into something completely different. The attacks start to get more imaginative, and by the very end, you're looking at something that feels a lot like what Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi would've cacklingly hammered out in 1993. Is it worth the wait? Not really.
I love classic, atmospheric horror like The Changeling and The Innocents, and I'm all for breakneck, demented splatter in the vein of Demons and the Evil Dead flicks. The Gravedancers tries to find some way to juggle those two very different approaches to the genre, but it bungles the immersive, unnerving tone of the best haunted house stories and misses what made spastic '80s horror flicks such a ridiculous amount of fun. Too much slow, tedious build-up...not nearly enough payoff. Most of the characters are too bland and boring for me to wanna suffer through spending this much time with 'em. Josie Maran's awfully pretty, even with bite marks on her face, and Megahn Perry seems like she's the only one in the cast having any fun. That's kinda where the praise for the cast begins and ends, and I was more engaged by that Cheerwine vending machine that pops up over and over again than any of the flesh-'n-blood actors. Even most of the supernatural stuff falls completely flat, without any depraved splatter to distract me. I'd rather just watch Poltergeist or whatever rather than settle for a second-rate knockoff.
Wicked Little Things
"Where do you live?"
"Up in the hills."
"You're shitting me. Up with the fuckin' zombies?"
Y'know, the zombies of those little kids that, the better part of a century back, slaved away in the mine up there. The asshole tycoon who owned this entire mountain in upper Pennsylvania ordered some dynamite to be lit, the kids were blown to holy hell, and...well, legends of tykes with black, hollow eyes and pickaxes feasting on the remains of anyone unfortunate enough to cross their path have been circling
around ever since. The locals learned many, many years ago to steer clear, especially once the sun sets. Karen (Lori Heuring) is just now rolling into what passes for a town, though, so she's missed out on all that chatter. Her husband died after a long, grueling, and devastatingly expensive battle with cancer, and their family lost everything. Karen came across the deed for a ramshackle little house in the mountains while sorting through his things, and she and her kids Sarah (Scout Taylor-Compton) and Emma (Chloe Moretz) have to set up shop there while they figure out their next move. Sarah falls in with a group of pot-smoking, horny high schoolers, which is exactly where you wanna be in a horror flick, while wee little Emma has started to pal around with a new imaginary friend...one that keeps calling her to the abandoned remains of that mine...
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I'm a card-carrying fan of murderous children...or I would be if I actually had a card. Children of the Corn! The Children! That...other movie also called The Children! Beware! Children at Play! As someone who's also a lifelong, ravenous fan of zombie flicks, this ought to be the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of horror: two great tastes that taste great together. It's not. I do feel a little guilty writing so glibly about Wicked Little Things. This is undeniably a well-crafted film, one that tries to take a more classic, respectful approach rather than the sensory overload the genre usually delivers these days. It's deliberately a slow burn, but...well, it's too slow. 32 minutes pass before the first on-screen kill, and it's another half-hour before the body count ticks up again. The zombie children are presented as more of a distant, abstract concept rather than a looming threat. Their appearances can be haunting, especially given that there are dozens of the undead, but you don't see much of them. I think I would've liked to have seen the mythology explored at least a little more. Do the zombified children feast on flesh because they were forced to do that when trapped in the mine? Have they been coming back every night looking to something to slaughter for nine full decades now? It seems like you'd run out of pigs and stuff awfully quickly.
Director J.S. Cardone likens Wicked Little Things to a dark fairy tale, so maybe it's intentional that so many elements of the plot seem standard issue. A rickety, rundown house, a sleepy little town tormented by the ghosts of its past, the grizzled old-timer ready to belt out all the exposition, the sweet little girl whose imaginary friend turns out to be a ghost, a bunch of teenagers parking their car in the middle of nowhere for no reason other than giving the zombies someone to butcher, and there's a cartoonishly over-the-top sinister businessman to boo and hiss at and stuff: in too many ways, this just feels like a movie I've watched many, many times before. What separates this unrated version from the R-rated theatrical release, I have no idea, since it really doesn't go overboard with splatter. The gore is actually really restrained until the climax draws near, although admittedly, the body count is pretty much non-existent up to that point too. Wicked Little Things is well-acted and shot with a keenly cinematic visual eye, doing a marvelous job establishing the right tone and atmosphere. At the same time, this is a very, very ordinary story, and there's not much of anything about Wicked Little Things to set it apart from the hundreds of other horror movies that have done the same thing in pretty much the same exact way. Rent It.
The Gravedancers looks pretty bland in high-def, but at least some of that is deliberate, draining away pretty much every trace of color and amping up the grain. I get what Mike Mendez is going for here and all,
but...well, it's the same look that 85% of horror flicks lean towards anymore, and The Gravedancers never really figures out how to make it work. Detail and definition are disappointingly lackluster too. This is clearly a high-def disc, sure, but it's soft enough that I don't get that sense of texture or clarity I'm used to on Blu-ray. The photography often struggles when the lights are dialed down, devolving into something flat, noisy, and lifeless, and in some of these stretches, it kinda does become indistinguishable from a DVD. Even though The Gravedancers was shot on film, it has a very video-like look to it, with only some very minor speckling tipping me off that this wasn't a digital shoot. The grain is resolved really well, so I guess the lack of clarity to the image is just something about the photography. The Gravedancers isn't unwatchable or anything, no, but this is kind of an ugly movie that doesn't dazzle so much in high-def. Wicked Little Things, meanwhile, is kinda gorgeous. The cinematography is far more polished, and its strikingly warm, vibrant palette sets it apart from the glut of bleak and bleached genre flicks. Contrast remains rock solid throughout, and the image is bolstered by deep, inky blacks. The cinematography is remarkably crisp and detailed as well. If I were scoring these on their own, I think I'd rate The Gravedancers two-and-a-half stars and hand at least four over to Wicked Little Things.
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The Gravedancers and Wicked Little Things are both presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and have been encoded with AVC. As you'd kinda hope for a double feature and all, these movies have been piled onto a dual-layer Blu-ray disc.
The sound design in The Gravedancers screams to life during the supernatural attacks...hellish snarling in the surrounds...pounding, punishing bass...an ancient house that's rattled to the foundations as these vengeful spirits tighten their chokehold. Otherwise, though, it's a pretty front-centric mix, and the clarity and fidelity are all pretty routine. Wicked Little Things is more ambitious, and its premise opens itself up for a more immersive, engaging mix. Strange sounds constantly skitter through the woods. The surrounds are filled with ethereal whispers and eerie creaks and groans. Its larger setpieces -- an explosion in a mine and the cave-in that follows...a truck that suddenly careens off the road and crashes into the woods below...the undead children swarming in for the kill -- are reinforced by a thunderous low-end and take full advantage of all of the channels at its disposal. Again, Wicked Little Things easily stands out as the best of the two, but the gulf isn't as wide with their soundtracks as it is on the visual end of things.
The technical specs are the same for both movies: 24-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks. Both halves of this double feature also serve up subtitles in English (traditional and SDH) and Spanish. No dubs or downmixes this time around.
the extras from the DVDs have made the leap over to Blu-ray too.
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- Audio Commentary: Director Mike Mendez hops into the recording booth with composer Joseph Bishara for this manic, hypercaffeinated commentary track. It's a ridiculous amount of fun, and I especially dig the drinking game Mendez whips up, taking a swig of beer every time there's a lit lamp in front of the camera, something that happens so often that his liver's gotta be on the brink of shutting down by the end there. There's so much great stuff in here: a pre-credit kill he really didn't want in the flick, spelling out Kira's backstory that was snipped out of the final cut (yeah, I was wondering why such a classy gal was living in a condemned shithole), suffering through filming with an untrained cat, dreaming up Culpepper as a mix between Velma and Condy Rice, the influence of Disney's Haunted Mansion, and what you would've had to look forward to if the movie were successful enough to warrant the trilogy he'd dreamed up. There's also quite a lot about the compromises that had to be made in taking what was envisioned as a $10-$15 million studio horror flick and gutting it to fit a $2.5 million budget. I wish I liked the end result anywhere near as much as I love this commentary track.
- Deleted Scenes (11 min.; SD): Cops! Silent secretaries! Lots and lots of relationshippy-character-interaction stuff! Disappearing bedsheets! More skulking through the house in the dark! Two scoops of more Culpepper! The movie itself didn't really do much for me, so the outtakes don't wow all that much either. Mike Mendez' optional commentary here is fantastic, though, extending far beyond the usual "cut for pacing!" you generally get with deleted scene commentary tracks, and I love how candid he is about what doesn't work.
- A Grave Undertaking (14 min.; SD): "A Grave Undertaking" is a perfectly adequate making-of featurette when you play it normally, chatting with the cast, touching on how ambitious a movie this is given its lean budget and tight shooting schedule, and everyone chuckling about the most grueling parts of the shoot. Solid enough but very, very ordinary. So, for something way more awesome, flip on the audio commentary since...well, everything on The Gravedancers has a commentary track attached. This time it's producer Lawrence Elmer Fuhrmann in front of the mic, and his commentary is brief but brilliant. Financing hiccups, a multi-studio juggling act, rolling cameras in an abandoned office park in Greensboro, NC, what they could use locally and what they had to import from more movie-savvy cities, miserable temperatures, inedible food, and a strike. Honestly, Fuhrmann's commentary might be my favorite thing on this entire Blu-ray disc.
- Making the Ghosts (12 min.; SD): Narrating over a ton of stills and behind-the-scenes footage, Mike Mendez runs through every step of bringing The Gravedancers' ghastly spirits to life, from Photoshopped conceptual art to maquettes to painted resin pieces to foam latex appliances. As you can probably tell by the runtime, it's a very in-depth look, and I especially dug hearing about what didn't make it in, such as the eleven-foot-tall ghostly judge that Mendez originally envisioned.
- Trailer (3 min.; SD): The original trailer from 2003 -- kind of a no-really-I-can-direct-this proof-of-concept -- is also included. In his optional commentary, Mike Mendez runs through why this trailer
was produced, lining up the cast, and how this $50,000 promo successfully lined up several million dollars to produce a feature-length film.
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- Storyboard Galleries (3 min.; SD): Why this is labeled as "galleries", plural, I have no idea, but this is a storyboard-to-screen comparison for the film's gigantic-head-chasing finalé.
Wicked Little Things
- Audio Commentary: The only extra for Wicked Little Things is an audio commentary by director J.S. Cardone and actress Lori Heuring. I guess "pleasant" is the first word that leaps to mind. It's polite and conversive...kinda like the movie they're talking about, fairly low-energy and understated too. Cardone starts by delving into the origins of the project, initially slated as more of a balls-out zombie flick for Tobe Hooper before being remolded into this grisly fairy tale. They gush about the talents of the many young actors in the film, including the Bulgarians playing the murderous children but particularly marveling at Chloe Moretz. If you're wondering what the kids are tearing into during the gutmunching, Cardone answers that here, and the conversation also swirls around 'the Marlon Brando of Bulgaria', pig-chasing, and the unconventional live recording of the film's score. It's a perfectly fine commentary, although I didn't find myself jotting down all that many highlights, and it's nothing I'd say is an essential listen.
The Final Word
I'm a rabid horror fan and kinda cheap, so...yeah, these very reasonably priced genre double features that Lionsgate is hammering out oughtta be right up my alley. I mean, nosing around on Amazon right now, the DVDs of The Gravedancers and Wicked Little Things would run me a little north of $23, and meanwhile, this Blu-ray double feature is all of $14.99. The technical specs are right where you'd want 'em to be, and every last one of the DVDs' extras have been ported over. Everything's pitch-perfect except the, um, movies. The Gravedancers is really underwhelming, and that's a drag considering how much of a fucking blast Mike Mendez' The Convent is. Wicked Little Things is much more expertly crafted, but it's too slow a burn. There's nothing about it that lingers...that would ever make me want to give it another spin. Rent It.