Deadtime Stores: Volume 1 is a horror anthology film, with three chapters, a recurrent format of the horror genre that George Romero has dabbled in before with some success. He serves here as producer, and provides bumpers between the three short films. The whole affair is rather hit and miss, and except for the chapter directed by horror master Tom Savini, not very impressive.
The three tales are quite diverse, with a jungle adventure story (sort of a much milder Cannibal Apocalypse or Slave of the Cannibal God), a mermaid story, and a vampire story. Below are the short descriptions as provided with the disc:
Valley of the Shadow
A young woman takes a search and rescue team deep into the African jungle to find her missing husband. Early in their journey, the team makes the grisly discovery that they are actually the ones being hunted.
A lonely man strolling on a remote beach discovers a mysterious box buried beneath the sand. His curiosity quickly gives way to terror when he discovers what's lurking inside the box will do just about anything to get out.
A mother calls a doctor to treat her mysteriously ailing son. Little does she know the ungodly horrors that this doctor's diagnosis will unleash...
The problem with the collection is mostly in the first two stories. For one thing, everything is much too bright and clean for a horror film. Angela (Amy Marsalis) and the other people exploring the African jungle in Valley of the Shadow are much too clean and kempt to have been roughing it in the bush, even for just a few days. And the wild man (who seems to be Angela's missing husband) has a well trimmed beard and head of hair, even though he is supposed to have been living alone in the jungle for three years. Who cuts his hair? The same kind of criticism can be leveled at the second story, Wet, which focuses on sinister mermaids. The protagonist Jack (Jeff Monahan, also the writer of all three shorts, and director of the first) is presented as a beach bum who scrapes by selling handmade pottery on the side of the road. But he lives in a very well appointed home with an ocean view. Does the house belong to a rich uncle? Is he squatting? Is he independently wealthy, only selling the pottery to pass the time, and if so why is he so intent on finding all of the jade boxes that supposedly hold the mermaid prisoner, if not to sell them? None of this is explained, or even considered important enough to nod at. And though Nick Mancuso does his valorous best to bring some verve to his portrayal of the antique dealer Swan, who knows more than he ought about mermaids, it is not enough to make the story either interesting or comprehensible.
Another problem would be the poor effects. Granted, this is a low budget horror anthology, and often it is appropriate to forgive a lot of cheesiness if the film is good enough. But successful films of this sort make up for lack of funds by an excess of gusto or attitude. Deadtime Stories generally fails in both these respects. In Valley of the Shadow a character gets shot through the face with a dart, piercing both cheeks, and visible in his open mouth. Except that the dart very obviously is in three pieces which don't line up, making the effect look ridiculous. The same goes for the severed heads at the end, which are clearly photoshopped onto the spikes. The mermaid effects in Wet also look like they were cobbled together as a high school crafts project.
But, and this is a big "but", the anthology is not entirely bad. House Call, the vampire themed short guided by the steady directorial hand of Tom Savini, is quite good, and very much worth one's time to watch even if the first two shorts are skipped. This is the story of Mrs. Norman (Maryann Nagel), a widow living in the Midwest in what appears to be the 1920s or 30s. Her son Jimmy (Jason Hoehnen) has latched on to the curious belief that he is a vampire. His obsession has grown so great that he has asked her to tie him to the bed so that he can't harm anyone. Terrified for her son, she calls the new doctor in town, Dr. Marsten (Bingo O'Malley), an elderly chap who has retired there from his practice in the big city. Reluctant at first, Marsten braves the stormy weather to come to the Norman home and see if he can't help the boy.
House Call is in all ways superior to the two previous shorts. To begin with, Savini makes the film quite dark, with the colors wan and pale and deep shadows covering everything, with almost the appearance of being in black and white. He constricts the frame, giving it the look of an old school silent film. And he casts very good actors, with the mien of real people, particularly the craggy and weathered Dr. Marsten. And the story is quite original and appropriately creepy. As Mrs. Norman talks to the doctor, she slowly reveals more and more things that her son has admitted to, revealing her to be not quite the noble and upright woman we at first think. A sense of dread is maintained throughout, along with a couple of good jump scares. And the film ends with not one, but two original twists. This is a great effort, and Savini is to be highly commended. If the preceding two shorts had been half as stylish and effective, Deadtime Stories would have been a great entry into the horror canon. Alas, it is not so, and the collection can be considered a rental only, but definitely worth that to see Savini's pitch perfect work.
The video is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, and looks quite good, though the first two shorts are altogether too clear and bright for a horror film. If this were a different kind of film, the quality of the video would have been a high point.
The audio is available in Dolby digital 5.1 channel and 2 channel, and sounds quite nice. Though the score is not terribly good, it is presented as well as possible. The audio has good separation, and a strong bass track, and the dialogue is always clearly audible. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish. No alternate language tracks are included.
Trailers are included for Deadtime Stories - Volume 1 and Volume 2, and for Shadows and Lies, Blitz, Elephant White, Sacrifice and Trust. Other than that, there are no extras.
Since only a third of the presented short films in Deadtime Stories: Volume 1 is worthy of praise, it's fair to say that the project is a failure overall. But this shouldn't overshadow the fact that Savini's entry is really high grade horror stuff. It's creepy, original and a lot of fun to watch. It would have been refreshing if the same level of care and craft had been extended to the first two parts of the anthology, but that did not happen. Definitely rent this one, but stick to the good parts.