This box set of three previous Tartan Video international horror releases needn't confound your alphabetized DVD collection. The movies come in their original keepcases, wrapped by a plain old thick paper library-style sleeve with uninspiring graphics. Ditch the slipcover and put these movies in proper alphabetical order. Speaking of slotting these DVDs on your shelf, this 40-dollar (MSRP) set will have you checking your pocketbook and judging your need for international horror, as the movies featured range from definitely skip-able to highly recommended.
Don't judge a DVD by its cover, as I did, since Sheitan twists a few standard horror elements into something fiercely original, outrageously subversive, and thoroughly entertaining. Ironically, (for this anti-hipster) French hipsters comprise our cadre of protagonists - but we'll have to take the good with the bad. Actually, the hipsters aren't that bad. Call me a Francophile, if you will, but these kids seem more intelligent than the mountain-man-beard-sporting, 'creative class' shmucks that shuffle around my town. Regardless, even though this group of partiers acts loutishly, they possess a logical native intelligence - avoiding most stupid-teen clichés - that's refreshing. Still, they wind up stranded in the countryside, irritating and enraging redneck hicks, on their way to extreme psychotronic peril.
From these humble plot building blocks comes audacious lunacy that's perfectly paced, references some giants of horror film without seeming derivative, and keeps you guessing. Best yet, this isn't just another bit of cool, stylish Gallic hyper-gore, (Inside, Martyrs) it's a fun-loving freak-fest featuring a magnificently out-of-control performance by Cassel, and some seriously menacing set pieces. Handyman Joseph (Cassel) works super-cute Eve's family farm. He welcomes Eve (Roxane Mesquida) and friends with manic exuberance, before using his halfwit joi de vivre to push them into any number of uncomfortable situations. Though certainly not the most horrific thing to occur, a compulsory skinny-dipping excursion in a cavernous hot springs, complete with nude, hair-trigger yokels, perfectly sets the stage for increasing levels of woozy weirdness and abstract terror.
When it ultimately reaches near Texas Chain Saw levels of bedrock insanity, Sheitan still manages to keep you guessing - something horror fans know is an amazing gift. Among drug haze sex trysts and an attic full of terrifying puppets is considerable raunchy black humor - there's even a militant Arab rap group. Sheitan, anchored by Cassel's magnificent performance, is a psych-out shocker that horror fans need to see. Despite few extras on the disc, the movie comes Highly Recommended.
Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman:
A Japanese town is abuzz over a 30-year-old urban legend known as the slit-mouthed woman - a mysterious masked gal who haunts playgrounds, asking kids if she is pretty enough. Typical woman: no answer is the right answer - and the kids get abducted. Kicker is that underneath the mask, her mouth is slit from ear-to-ear. In present day the legend returns to vitality, as the slit-mouthed woman begins snatching kids in broad daylight, forcing a pair of concerned teachers to confront their pasts, their problems, and the spooky ghost, in hopes of returning the kids to safety.
Only, kids' safety seems to be the furthest thing from the minds of writers Yokota and Shiraishi, as the slit-mouthed woman derives from some seriously poor parenting, while most of the other parents are either abusive or self-absorbed. Even heroine Kyoko (Eriko Sato) seems more concerned with her students than her own child living in virtual exile with her estranged husband. So while the slit-mouthed woman busies herself abducting kids and kicking the living snot out of them in a basement, our other characters content themselves by beating or ignoring their own progeny while putting on societal masks of their own. As a metaphor for maternal parenting in Japan, it's a howling, ham-fisted indictment, but it doesn't exactly make for the type of chills we look for from J-horror.
And there's the rub, for anyone remotely familiar with J-horror, (all of you) Carved really stints on the scares. Slit-Mouth dwells in a suitably creepy abandoned house, but chances to wring tension from exploration of said domicile are left to the side - even musical shock-cues are neglected - so we can watch the ghost kick pre-teen girls around the basement. Not only do we get ample warning whenever the slit-mouthed woman appears, but also her horrific visage is underused (the effect was probably too expensive). In all Carved represents an OK twist on a stale idea, only devoid of much tension, and artlessly pedantic about bad Japanese parents. It's merits only a Skip It vote, unless you're really desperate.
Despite a supernatural theme, Slaughter's pretty much a riff on My Bloody Valentine, as a mysterious, evil revenant stalks and hacks a group of teens in an abandoned mine. Sure, the killer might be the ghost of a satanic, child-killing maniac, but as reels unspool, the effect is the same; decent tension, a little nice gore, and a few stylish chills in the claustrophobic underground.
Our horror building-blocks include those ubiquitous teens, but this foreign thriller stacks up realistic teens acting with a modicum of intelligence - a feat stateside moviemakers still can't pull off. It's a simple technique, garnering trust and goodwill that offsets more standard horror building-blocks. Kids panic, act like jerks, and split up - making for easy slaughtering. Another simple, well worn, can't fail technique is the inclusion of a character like Kris, (Victoria Koblenko) a brainy, gorgeous little shorty with a bangin' bod. Kris represents eye candy that, for our gentleman viewers, soothes the eye between hectic bouts of death.
Using massive doses of Saving Private Ryan-style shaky hyper-cam and blistering editing, Slaughter risks suffocating in self-conscious youthful style. This renders kill-scenes slightly unsettling - the gore goes by so fast - but remains consistent and confident throughout the movie. Some effectively tense set pieces, silent, measured and subdued, contrast perfectly with those other shell-shocked scenes, not only making for engaging viewing, but also proving that directors Frank van Geloven and Edwin Visser know what they're doing.
Slaughter Night mixes a few standard horror elements in a relatively interesting way, benefits from good performances, and chooses to highlight some nice gore (watch out for that shovel!) with hyper editing and camerawork. Extra care taken to contrast the frenzy with cool terror is the final element, allowing Slaughter to rise above the crop. It's no masterpiece, but for horror fans it merits a hearty Rent It recommendation.