Indie horror runs in cycles. One year, everyone's going zombie. The next, it's sly societal serial killer time. Whether its bare-backing onto torture porn, wallowing in the worthless romance of the vampire, or delving deep into the demonic, cinematic scares just can't seem to stop cannibalizing themselves. Even more concerning, hoary old terror cliches - say, the evil that lives next door - have also been done to death. Apparently, inspiration can't derive from individual invention. It must come from some already established conceit, cooped and then cold-cocked by the fledgling filmmaker. Take the latest repackaging of previous Shock-O-Rama titles: The Suburban Psycho Collection. Not only do we get four novice scarefests of varying degrees of accomplishment, but all are a variation on the theme of innocent victims trapped in a web of slice and dice intrigue - with one weird exception.
Charles and Deborah Rosenblad are not your typical married couple. They don't live the typical suburban life. Instead, they are mass murderers, and in the basement of their quiet little house lies a terrible secret - a collection of captive girls waiting for the duo's deadly, debauched games.
Things are really awful for Jane and Jackie Sicole. Their mother killed their father, cut off his penis, and then turned a gun on herself. Years later, they are gang raped, with their little sister Janice dying during the attack. After years in an institution, they are about to be released and have only one thing on their mind - REVENGE!
An ancient witch's curse comes to contemporary society when a philandering husband's plans to bump off his wife unleashes the deadly legacy, allowing the eon's old demonic evil to rise up and take over.
When her jerk-ass daddy buys a dilapidated house, Julie gets a few of her teens friends together to help clean it up. Little do they know that something sinister sits in the sewer, using the old house's plumbing system to stalk and slay its intended victims.
Four films - four different levels of accomplishment and aggravation. Homemade horror movies are never consistently good. They show flashes of genius, but that's about it. You have to pick and choose through the slop in order to find the gems, and most times, the treasure hunt is just too taxing. In the case of one of the films featured here, the scavenging is well worth. Two others tempt us, but fail to fully deliver. And finally, a potential spoof of the classic monster movie is undermined by a lamer than lo-fi approach and a real lack of spark. Viewed individually, we can highlight the success - and flog the failures, beginning with:
Suburban Nightmare (Score: ***1/2)
As a huge fan of Trent Haaga, it was great to see him excel in what is, essentially, a wonky character study with Grand Guignol overtones. Any movie made to showcase the dissolving relationship between two crazed psychopaths is bound to be a bit over the top, but Haaga and his co-star Brandy Little do an excellent job of staying within the dramatic standards of the storyline. We get to know these people, wonder why they've become so destructive and deviant. We also find ourselves trapped in the Hell created by this pair. Of the four films offered here, this one is the most polished, professional...and powerful - and it's all thanks to the excellent cast.
Psycho Sisters (Score: **1/2)
With a premise that screams drive-in delight and execution that almost matches said passion pit proclivities, it's just a shame that Psycho Sisters wasn't "more"...more salacious...more serious...more over the top and troubling...more inventive. As it wanders down the paths established by exploitation filmmakers decades before, directors Pete Jacelone, Sal Longo, and Gary Whitson (yes, it apparently took THREE different individuals to muck this thing up) move from icky sleaze to goofy gore slapstick with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Back in the late '90s when this was made, such an approach was par for the direct to DVD course. Over a decade later, it's dated...and dumb.
Skin Crawl (Score: **1/2)
Having already reviewed this title before, all that can be said is that the glorious Debbie Rochon deserves better than a sloppy Pulp Fiction/Rashamon riff that waits for over an hour before the terror truly arrives. First time writer/director Justin Wingenfeld just loads too much on his cinematic plate to pull it all off successfully. The script is overstuffed and the performances plagued by layers of unnecessary backstory that do little except trip up out already tainted expectations. While it does have some redeeming qualities, the overall vibe is of grand ambitions and the abject inability to realize them. It has potential, if little else.
Drainiac (Score: *1/2)
If you look up the work "schlock" in the dictionary, you'd probably get a picture of this horrible, hackneyed b-movie. This is a horror film in inebriated intent only. Nothing is particularly scary or interesting, and even the standard scarefest nudity is metered out in less than memorable ways. Sure, it's about as dopey as a seventh dwarf and contains some moments of high (must have been high) camp and kitsch. But the bad acting and low budget leanings of the production do it in time and time again. This should have been a hilarious haunted romp - or at the very least, a stupid bit of nude exploitation gratuity. Instead, it's just a silly waste of time.
Of the four films offered, only Drainiac is presented in a remastered 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image. The movie was "tweaked" a few years ago to expand the F/X and polish up the production. It shows. As for the others, it's 1.33:1 full screen all the way. The transfers aren't terrible, but you can really see the lack of professional equipment - and perhaps, most importantly, editorial expertise - in almost every frame.
It's Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 all the way - and even then, the recording technology used can give the age of the production away. Sometimes, the dialogue is so difficult to hear that you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered. At other instances - as in Suburban Nightmare - the conversations come across fine. For the most part, the musical scores are cheesy and uninteresting. While acceptable, the aural aspects of this release are about as far from reference quality as you can get.
Individually, here is what you can look forward to:
Suburban Nightmare: A commentary from the director, three short films, a music video, and a behind the scenes production documentary. All in all, a good selection of complements to an above average film.
Psycho Sisters: A commentary with cast and crew. Mediocre, with far too many gaps and in-jokes.
Skin Crawl: A commentary with cast and crew and some select interviews. Insightful and a lot of fun.
Drainiac: A DVD insert, and a commentary with the director. Much more interesting than the movie itself.
Again, all DVD box sets are a hodgepodge of potential problems. From weaker elements dragging down their betters to a quandary about value vs. viability, it can be a confusing concept to wrap your reviewing brain around. One of the films here is very good. Two are definitely watchable. The fourth fails in too many ways to make it anything other than awful. As a parallel universe Meatloaf would warble, three out of four ain't bad, and as a result, the Suburban Psycho Horror Collection earns a reluctant Recommended. While it's fun to see such fledgling filmmaking trying to shock and terrorize, just getting though 90 minutes aesthetic unscathed is almost impossible for all these titles. Indie horror is indeed cyclical. It's also uneven. This DVD set is a perfect portrait of both ideals.