DVD Stalk: Silent Hill, Chaos, and Overlooked Val Lewton
We kick off this week's huge batch of horror DVD reviews with Scott Weinberg's take on the Christophe Gans video game adaptation Silent Hill. Sticking fairly close to the highly successful series of video games, Roger Avary bases his script for this creepy surprise hit on the real-life virtually abandoned town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. As Scott Weinberg explains, the fictional town of Silent Hill makes for quite the frightening visual experience: "Visually, this thing is an absolute feast, but [it] isn't the type of menu that'll please all comers. French filmmaker Christophe Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf) creates one of the most foreboding, unpleasant, and plain old icky locales you ever will see." The film delivers in a way that most studio-produced horror films falter, as Weinberg points out as well: "You could probably spend a few weeks writing about the psycho-sexual subtext, the ghoulishly gothic inspirations, and the biblical allegory found within Gans's adaptation -- but I choose to watch Silent Hill as a straightforward haunted house story, and by those standards, it's a pretty damn good ride. If the movie feels just a little bit overstuffed at times (not to mention, at 125 minutes, just a mite overlong), I see that as an indication of a filmmaker working extra hard to please a ferociously vocal fanbase. For all its relatively minor flaws, Silent Hill is a horror film with actual aspirations of quality. Most studio-backed horror flicks don't even bother with such things." Silent Hill is a disc that horror fans cannot afford to miss (especially fans of the video games themselves).
David DeFalco's Chaos caused quite a stir when Roger Ebert decided to overtly trash the film. DeFalco retaliated and the argument only escalated. Chaos, however, turns out to be a surprisingly worthwhile film. As Ian Jane says: "While one could certainly argue that Chaos is nothing more than a pointless exercise in onscreen carnage and depravity, it is a well-made film and it delivers exactly what it promises." A brutal, tough film in the tradition of Wes Craven's Last House on the Left, Chaos is a graphic (and sometimes shameless) portrayal of sexual violence that pulls absolutely no punches. "On the other hand, there's no denying that this film will at least make you feel something, even if it's nothing more than pity for the two girls who are unfortunate enough to trust a stranger in the woods. DeFalco prefaces the movie with a text scrawl that states that Chaos is a cautionary tale, a warning in hopes that it will prevent crimes like the ones depicted in the film from happening in real life. While this motive is certainly questionable (in fact it's probably a load of crap) it follows the tradition of similar introductions like the one at the beginning of Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and puts us in the frame of mind where it's not that difficult to imagine these types of events happening in the world around us." If you can stomach this one, and have an idea of what you're getting into, Chaos is certainly worthy of a spin.
The Amazing Mr. X is, as Stuart Galbraith IV describes, "Sort of a cross between the Anthony Mann/John Alton noirs produced at Eagle-Lion in the late-1940s and the Val Lewton fantasy horrors from earlier in the decade, the film is a modest but extremely effective supernatural thriller and much-underrated." Image finally gives the film its due treatment with a much-improved visual presentation (probably the best-looking version you'll find of this public domain title) made from some very sharp source elements. The film boasts some superb acting and, as Galbraith elaborates, some beautiful cinematography: "The Amazing Mr. X is a winner all the way. Its greatest asset is John Alton's superb cinematography. Though he'd win an Oscar for An American in Paris and shot such mainstream successes as The Teahouse of the August Moon and Elmer Gantry, Alton is best remembered today for his stunning noirs and their eye-popping use of light and shadow, photography that took the genre to its visual apex. Alton applies many of the same techniques here, and throughout the film adopts alternately evocative and disconcerting points-of-view (especially extreme low angles and, near the end, a few hand-held shots)." The Amazing Mr. X is definitely a hypnotic little film that deserves to be seen by a wider audience, and one that the horrorhounds might actually appreciate.
Also this week, Ian Jane has a chance to check out two new double features from BCI's Crypt of Terror line, and finds both of them worth picking up. Up first is Night of the Bloody Apes paired with Curse of the Doll People. Here's a sampling of what Ian has to say: "Directed by Mexico's most famous exploitation director, Rene Cardona, and co-written with his son, 1969's Night of the Bloody Apes (which was previously released by both Something Weird Video and in a horrid not so special edition by Beverly Wilshire Filmworks) is a grisly little monster movie with wrestlers, gore, nudity and remains one of the best known Mexican horror films of the era." BCI does the right thing with this release by including both the tamer Mexican version of the film as well as the gore-filled export version. The 1961 Mexican import, Curse of the Doll People doesn't work quite as well as the previous film on this double-billing, but "...while the story is fairly pedestrian and not particularly surprising, what makes the movie work are the dolls themselves. Played by midgets with really strange masks on, they're flat out creepy pretty much anytime they are on the screen, which gives the movie a lot more atmosphere than it would have had otherwise." This Night of the Bloody Apes / Curse of the Doll People double feature release from BCI, nevertheless, is truly a nice little package for at a great bargain price.
BCI's other Mexican horror double feature disc pairs Cemetery of Terror with The Grave Robbers. Both of these eighties-era flicks are fun B-movie entertainment that should bring some joy to the hearts of many a Mexican horror fan. Here's what Ian has to say about each of these entries: "A strange sort of cross between John Carpenter's Halloween (what with the unstoppable killing machine and the obsessed doctor on his trail) and Bob Clarke's Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things (with the dopey teens, the black mass, and the zombies), Ruben Galindo Jr.'s Cemetery of Terror is a reasonably well paced horror film with some nice atmosphere, some cool locations, and towards the end of the movie, some nice zombie action. It's also very much a product of the eighties and as such, it's pretty dated. Look for a kid in a white satin jacket with an airbrushed picture of Michael Jackson on the back and groove on the primitive Casio inspired soundtrack and you'll probably start having flashbacks to the era when Reagan was in the White House and Pac Man was king." And, just as with the previous double feature, the second film might not live up to the quality of the first, but "...The Grave Robbers is [still] a fast paced film that gives us just enough set up to allow it to switch to the modern day setting and get on with the gory goods. The story is neither complex nor really all that good but as an eighties horror film, it's a fun ride and it's plenty entertaining." This disc is also easily recommended for any fan of Mexican horror.
DVD Savant takes a look at Ted Newsom's The Naked Monster, this week, and calls it "...a practically homemade film assembled by genre enthusiasts not far removed in spirit from the hopefuls whose antics created Equinox forty years ago. Newsom is a screenwriter and genre expert well-known for his documentary on Ed Wood, among others...Unlke Equinox, The Naked Monster is not a special effects talent audition. It started as a fun summer activity among friends, which, as Newsom explains, grew (or dragged out) into a ten-year project." It may not be the greatest movie on the planet, but The Naked Monster is a silly bit of monster fun in a nice DVD package that Savant says will "appeal almost exclusively to die-hard monster fans."
In the illustrious words of Bill Gibron: "[Kazuo Umezu] has been part an integral part of the Japanese culture for over five decades. Today, [he] is considered by many to be the founding father of supernatural comics (also known as "manga") and the motivation behind the recent J-Horror movement in movies." So it's pretty clear, from the title alone, that we could expect good things from Kazuo Umezu's Horror Theater: Volume 2. "Featuring two 50 minute mini-movies," Gibron says, "this manga anthology plays a lot like a Japanese version of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected, or a less lighthearted Tales from the Crypt." The two films on this release certainly aren't great films, but they do add something to the ever growing J-Horror genre. "Wavering between laudatory and laughable, both efforts here suffer from some minor moviemaking mistakes. And yet, we tend to like our horror on the haphazard side. It makes us feel more secure, knowing that perfected gristliness might terrify us forever. As a result, even with their occasional flaws, both efforts on this disc deserve to be seen." Even with some reservation, Kazuo Umezu's Horror Theater: Volume 2 still comes as recommended viewing.
Clive Barker somehow has the ability to make even the most inane horror projects into something cerebral and worthwhile. More times than not, his macabre touch is enough to rescue a film from complete failure. This is exactly the mindset Scott Weinberg had when he decided to tackle The Plague. All he needed to hear was Barker's name attached and he knew the film had a shot. "And for the first 30-some minutes of Hal Masonberg's The Plague, I was actively rooting for this movie to keep me interested. Alas, it did not, and The Plague left me wishing that the flick had followed through on its initial (and very cool) premise instead of devolving into yet another (and very stale) zombie-type chase thriller... Needless to say, this has the seeds of a very promising premise, and the flick even ups the ante by going all "Ten Years Later" on us. When the new action picks up, The Plague starts to feel like a slowly deflating balloon: Interesting at the outset, and then gradually less compelling as time ticks by. And by the end of The Plague, the movie really does feel like that empty balloon." It's a shame too, as the film has a lot of promise at the outset. The Plague, unfortunately, doesn't live up to its potential and is worth a rental at best.
Finally, Ian Jane has the chance to sit down with Santeria and finds it a mildly interesting and atmospheric film that simply can't overcome the restraints of its micro-budget. Here's what Ian has to say about the film: "Inspired by the classic supernatural films of the seventies like The Exorcist and The Omen, Santeria benefits from some great cinematography and some nice atmosphere that put it above other shot on video low budget quickies. The movie looks quite good, it is very well shot, and the lighting goes a long way to making it all look more impressive than it probably should. Unfortunately just because the movie looks really nice doesn't mean that it isn't without its flaws, and Santeria does have a few problems that you can't help but notice." The real problems with the film, however, lie in the sub par acting and lackluster pacing. As Ian says, "With a bigger budget and a better cast, Santeria could have been a really good movie – here, obviously limited by those important elements, it's simply okay." Definitely worth a rental, but not much more.
Neil Marshall's latest horror masterpiece, The Descent has finally descended upon US theaters and scared up a nice audience for Lionsgate. The frightening and claustrophobic film might just be the most finely crafted, and effective, horror film of the last ten years. The Descent (even with its truncated statewide conclusion) comes highly recommended and is a film that no horror fan can afford to miss.
Also currently in theaters is M. Night Shyamalan's latest film, Lady in the Water. Easily Shyamalan's worst opening weekend since he hit it big with The Sixth Sense, this "bedtime story" not only caused his breakup with Disney, but has also provided the director with the harshest reviews of his career (yeah, even worse than the ones he received for The Village). With a complex (and often times downright silly) storyline, Lady in the Water has failed to catch to connect with audiences so far, and may go on to become Shyamalan's least successful film. Horror or not, there are certainly some genre elements in the film and it might be worth checking out if for nothing more than the lack of horror films currently in theaters.
If you're looking for a genre-related flick that the whole family can enjoy, however, there is one more film currently in the cineplex: Monster House. The animated film about a house that's really a living, breathing monster has scored some excellent reviews and is doing well enough at the box office to call it a hit. So load up the kids and introduce them to your favorite genre at an early age with the innovative and clever Monster House.
Oh, and lest I forget, unless you're planning on hitting the theaters just to see the gorgeous Kristen Bell, don't even bother wasting your money on Pulse. With all its hiccups along the way to finally hitting the big screen, the flick was doomed from the start. If you're that desperate to gaze at the beauty of Ms. Bell, do yourself a favor and watch her excellent TV series Veronica Mars.
Val Lewton was an absolute master when it came to creating films with tension, suspense, and generally creepy drama. The legendary producer not only changed the face of horror films at the time, but also changed the way people viewed film as a whole. DVD Savant describes Lewton's influence as such: "Much like Preston Sturges, in the 1940s Lewton had a brief but productive run of personal productions that all but eclipsed the efforts of others in his field. Although Lewton would rather have been doing literary adaptations or period pieces his string of unprepossessing modern-day horror chillers gave him free reign to express his ideas about fear and the unknown. As a result, the Universal-style monster rallies of the 1940s are now mostly dated and amusing, while Lewton's productions remain as powerful as the day they premiered." The late 2005 Warner release of The Val Lewton Horror Collection is easily my favorite DVD release of that calendar year, and probably the one that I dip into most often. It's also, unfortunately, a release that many horror fans may have let slip under the radar. Every single movie is a gem (not necessarily great movies in the cinematic sense, but always entertaining films) that I could watch endlessly. If you've never had the pleasure of seeing Lewton's magic in action, pick this set up immediately. With the quality of the films in the set, you won't be disappointed.
We discussed Cat People at length in Issue 7 of DVD Stalk, and here's just a bit of what we had to say about the film: "Part horror, part noir, the original Cat People still stands as one of the most influential horror films of the 1940s. The film was not simply a hit at the box office upon its release in 1942; it also influenced the way films (and not just horror films) were made thereafter. While not the erotic thriller that Paul Schrader re-envisioned in 1982, Jacques Tourneur's Cat People is a much more subtle, yet all the more terrifying, version of Irena's transformation from loving wife to wronged predator. Tourneur ramps up the tension in his film by showing as little as possible and, instead, chooses to use shadow, light, and sound to create an environment in which it's often difficult to decipher what's real and what's in the mind's eye."
In addition to Cat People, The Val Lewton Horror Collection also includes pristine DVD releases of I Walked with a Zombie (Lewton's most critically acclaimed, and probably most popular, film), The Leopard Man, The 7th Victim, The Ghost Ship, The Curse of the Cat People, Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher, and Bedlam. If that wasn't already enough, Warner Bros. also includes New Wave's documentary Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy on the same disc as The 7th Victim. An impassioned and extensive documentary about the legendary producer, Shadows in the Dark is simply the icing on this fantastic cake. Every single horror fan should have The Val Lewton Horror Collection on their DVD shelf. Every single one. It's that simple.
As DVD Stalk continues to grow, we hope to bring you more great features and even a few surprises. The first of which is our brand new DVD Stalk Forum. We thought a dedicated sub-forum to handle all the horror-related chatter would be a great addition to the already-thriving DVD Talk Forums. We'll also be posting horror news, quick-hit peeks at upcoming discs, and press releases in the new forum, so check it out and join in the fun at the DVD Stalk Forum.
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