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Lionsgate and After Dark Films have decided to release some of their ‘Horrorfest’ titles on high definition Blu-ray disc. Those familiar with me and the series know I’ve managed to cover (most of ) each year’s collection of eight films, so this group review will include re-edited versions of my previous reviews with new reviews of A/V quality. Each disc in this four disc collection features two films from one year’s collection. I have no idea how these particular films were decided upon, though Gravedancers, Borderlands and The Broken are among the more professional and quality pictures in the studio’s and festival’s history. Each two movie disc is available separately as well.

After Dark Horrorfest Collection

Disc One: Gravedancers and Wicked Little Things



Gravedancers


Three college friends are reunited when a fourth meets an untimely death. That night they get wasted in the graveyard, and dance on some graves. Soon after, they are violently haunted by the ghosts of the souls belonging in those graves. Gravedancers is a perfectly entertaining and perfectly forgettable little movie. It scores a decently famous cast (we're talking high B-level), and sports the most refined digital effects sequence of any of the ‘Films to Die For’. It also features a nice mix of desaturated and supersaturated digital grading, which adds to the overall production value, something woefully missing from a lot of these movies. The unfortunate thing is, like all the films in the collection, Gravedancers features a particularly unoriginal plot, save the initial addition of some of the mythology. It compensates with the title gimmick, but really only works as a classy B-movie with good performances. The plot is a mix of Dark Castle's 13 Ghosts remake, and the Ring-inspired J-Horror stories that proliferated through the early to mid 2000s. The film is enjoyably retro, however, and reminded me a lot of lighter horror films from the mid-'80s like The Poltergeist series, and Ghostbusters, at least in terms of the horror imagery. The filmmakers add just enough gore to earn the R-rating, but with a few cuts the flick could've easily made a PG-13. It also ends with a nice take on the classic 'Hail Mary' shot every basketball movie ever seems to end with.

It’s been a long time since I saw any of these movies on DVD, so it’s hard to really compare the releases, but overall I’m pretty impressed with the A/V quality. Gravedancers is a really good looking film, with eerie desaturated colours, sharp details, and a lot of teeny tiny film grain. The desaturation leads to a practically black and white general look, but there are some poppy greens throughout, and a fair number of warmer sequences later in the film, when the ghosts start showing up. The grain will put some viewers off, but it really offers nice texture to the whole thing. The DTS-HD sound is a bit on the artificial side, but is rich with surround and directional elements. The audio designers don’t miss a single chance to have something move around the audience, or sneak up behind them. This disc also has more extras than most films in the collection including a commentary track with director Mike Mendez and composer Joseph Bishara, ‘A Grave Undertaking’ behind the scenes featurette (13:40, SD), deleted scenes (11:20, SD), ‘Making the Ghosts’ featurette (12:20, SD) and the original trailer. Everything has an optional commentary track, including the trailer, except ‘Making the Ghosts’, which features only a commentary option (thus making it not an option). Things are wrapped up with Lionsgate trailers and an image gallery.

Wicked Little Things


Miners send little kids into little holes to place little sticks of dynamite. The kids are killed, then haunt the small mining town from then on out as flesh eating zombies. A family bereft of their father moves into town, and quickly learns the reasoning behind these violent little bastards. Again, it’s not as if any of the other films in this collection feature original plots, but Wicked Little Things has a particularly bold case of cliché-itis. Characters are constantly entering the dark corners alone, looking for trouble instead of running for help, cars won't start or get stuck in the mud, and every scare is telegraphed minutes before it hits. The film is reasonably good looking, the acting is top tire, but the characters are so broadly drawn I just barely didn't hate them. I'd generally found myself wanting the protagonists to survive, but I wasn't going to be too broken up if the kiddies hacked them up and ate the parts. The story is the weakest link, and doesn't really go anywhere beyond 'family moves into creepy house, zombie kids outside, family has internal angst, zombie kids chase them'. Again, we're left with a 30-minute film stretched into an excruciating 90. The bad seeds themselves aren't even a little scary, and moreover, the film is often unintentionally funny. Kids slaughtering people with pickaxes and shovels (especially with broad sound effects) is comic gold.

Wicked Little Things looks a bit like Gravedancers, but with a slightly more consistent palette, and a darker overall tone. Darkness overwhelms most of the film, flecked with spooky highlights, and relatively thick grain. The transfer is so dark and grainy that this release has very little chance to step above a standard definition release. Details are sharpish, but not overly impressive. Only effective background details during wider shots, and a lack of compression artefacts make a double dip worthwhile. The DTS-HD audio is equally average, featuring a relatively centered overall presentation spiked with occasional background ambience. The soundtrack music is quite warm, and rather effectively encompasses the stereo and surround channels. The LFE is pretty weak, but comes to life a bit with the scores percussive elements. Wicked Little Things has wicked few extras, including a pretentious commentary track with director J.S. Cardone and actress Lori Heuring, and some trailers.

After Dark Horrorfest Collection

Disc Two: Borderland and Crazy Eights



Borderland


Three college buddies travel just south of Texas to a border town for a weekend of hard drinking, hot sex, and hallucinatory drug use. At the end of the second night of partying one buddy goes missing, and the other two go looking for him with the help of a disheveled ex-police detective telling stories of a cult of criminals practicing brutal human sacrifices. Like most of the Horrorfest releases, Borderland is a slight twist on an overdone formula. At its base the film is just another dead partying teenagers in a strange land flick, in the vein of Hostel, Wolf Creek, Turistas, Live Feed, and of course, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (original and remake). Though it isn’t the best of its kind, the movie does play a bit against our expectations, and it’s very well made. The plot is based on a factual and publicly available case, not unlike most similar films, but manages to produce a few pleasant surprises here and there. Borderland is one of the more violent Horrorfest titles, but most of its gore is delegated to the first scene. Gore hounds looking forward to unrated Hostel level shocks may be disappointed, but fans of sloppy bullet hits and fist-smashed faces will have plenty to celebrate. Visually the film is strong, with impressive production values. I’m guessing it was considered for a solo release before Turistas and Captivity flopped.

Borderland is another of the Horrorfest catalogue’s better looking features. The whole film is shot using high contrast blacks and whites set over super-saturated warm hues. The colours here pop hard against the harsh blacks, and do so without bleeding or displaying any compression sound (unlike the original DVD release). The whole film feels hot, even the night and dark interior shots. Film grain is thinly peppered over the whole transfer, and in 1080p these artefacts are smaller and more consistent than I remember from the 480p release. The thick blacks don’t do a lot for fine details, but the edges are all quite sharp. The DTS-HD soundtrack is busy and expressive. There’s no call for realism in this particular production, and hip-hop montage leads to some pretty abstract sound design, especially during a scene where the main characters eat mushrooms and visit a carnival. There aren’t a lot of directional effects, but the rear channels are consistently made a part of the track, even during quieter talking moments. Adding credence to my theory that Borderland was destined for a full theatrical release, this disc has a decent collection of extras including an informational commentary track with director Zev Berman, actor Brian Presley, D.P. Scott Kevan and producer Lauren Moews, ‘Inside Zev’s Head’ featurette (20:40, SD), ‘Rituales de Sangre’ documentary (28:50, SD), trailers and another ‘Miss Horrorfest’ webisode.

Crazy Eights


Six childhood friends are brought together when one of their own dies. While settling their friend’s final estate they happen across a treasure map that leads to a time capsule set in an abandoned barn. In the capsule is the skeleton of a child. In their panic they’re lost on the road leaving the barn, only to find themselves trapped in a creepy and condemned orphanage. Gravedancers took the dead childhood friend bringing adults back together theme from The Big Chill, and added some supernatural chills. Similar themes of childhood trauma bringing about adulthood horrors have also been explored ad nauseam by Stephen King over the years. I’m not sure if the creators of Crazy Eights took King or The Big Chill into account (or both) when making the film, but the results are a sort of half-watchable mutant child of the two similar styles. Co-writer/director James K. Jones has more visual flare than most of the Horrorfest directors, and makes some beautiful camera, lighting and angle choices that make all the difference in setting his film apart. The story unfolds rather gracefully, despite its oft-told and predictable nature. The atmosphere is thick and eerie, but the scares rarely stick, and the suspense doesn’t really agitate. The film winds up in a sort of unfortunate middle ground between a glossy Hollywood thriller, and pure B-movie schlock. I doubt anyone will come away from the film upset by its quality, but I can’t see anyone on either side of film fandom coming away too satisfied.

Crazy Eights is made to look stylized and raw. The images is usually divided into two options – high contrast, and soft focus. Both options lead to a less than ideal 1080p experience. Details are never particularly sharp, and the thick grain that shows up will likely drive some viewers crazy, but these both clearly come out of choices made in production. I am somewhat surprised by what appear to be print damage artefacts, but overall digital and compression artefacts aren’t a problem. The DTS-HD MA soundtrack features every manner of swirling directional effects and supernatural ambience. One might even say the sound designers overdid it, but for the purposes of digital sound review I’ve got very few complaints. The surround and stereo elements do a lot to bury the audience in the ghostly feel of the film, and the LFE gives the musical score a nice bump. Extras are terse, including only a Miss Horrorfest webisode and Lionsgate trailers.


After Dark Horrorfest Collection

Disc Three: The Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations and The Broken



The Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations


In 2009 I ran out of time reviewing the third Horrorfest collection, and never got to even watching three of the eight films. The Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations was one of the entries I skipped (for the record the other two were Dying Breed and From Within). Ironically enough (or entirely unironically if we’re splitting hairs) I also never bothered to see the original Butterfly Effect either, and didn’t even realize there was a sequel. Though the characters are pretty apparently different, it seems that those who saw the original Ashton Kutcher flick are at a bit of an advantage when it comes to the mechanics of this film’s time travel elements. It’s nice that things aren’t over-explained, but as a novice I did feel a little left out. But this is the least of the film’s problems. First off, Butterfly Effect 3, though visually interesting, features an utterly boring and predictable storyline. Then there’s an entire universe of unlikeable, mean spirited characters that despite a solid showing from the better than average cast, don’t help make the experience any more intriguing. Probably chief among these issues, at least in terms of this particular film collection, Butterfly Effect 3 isn’t a horror movie. It’s barely even a thriller. Most of the screen time is devoted to melodrama, with only the time travel aspects available to give it a proper ‘supernatural’ context. I’m guessing the original Butterfly Effect was a bit more novel, and that this film follows a preset pattern. That said, I was generally impressed with the amount of bloodshed, and frequency of gore.

Butterfly Effect 3 features more impressive production costs than most of the movies here, and looks pretty impressive in its 2.35:1, 1080p glory. The overall transfer is a bit soft, and the photographic choices don’t lend themselves to the most impressive fine details, but the stylized colour schemes and deep blacks do impress. There’s not a lot of variety in the palette, but among the warm golds are poppy highlights, and the blends are smooth. There aren’t really any digital artefacts, but the film grain is a little on the smudged side, which leads me to believe there was a bit of post-production fiddling. The DTS-HD MA soundtrack features plenty of ambient noise throughout the various channels, especially during the ‘time jump’ scenes, which feature a sort of vortex effect. The scene where our protagonist discovers a body infested with flies is another great directional effect moment, as insects buzz throughout every channel, and around the viewer’s head. The music is another solid contribution, specifically in the rear and LFE channels, though the fidelity doesn’t totally match the centered dialogue and on-set effects. Extras include another Miss Horrorfest episode and trailers.

The Broken


If you look up Broken on imdb.com you get twenty six matches. Twenty five have been released since 2000. That is an overused title, my friends, and as such gives us a general feel for the quality of the film we’re about to see. Ironically enough this film doesn’t show up, because its creators have crammed a ‘the’ in front of the word. This particular The Broken is all about the oft filmed subject of doppelgangers. Evil doppelgangers, to be exact, though there doesn’t seem to be any other kind. Think Invasion of the Body Snatchers minus the screaming and pointing aliens.

The Broken is a strangely studious and procedural film. One wonders if it weren’t for this tempered pacing, the film would run closer to thirty minutes. When a mirror shatters, it shatters several times, edited to create the effect of a more violent and prolonged crash. When Gina first witnesses her doppelganger driving by, the shot is repeated in varying speeds. When Gina is admitted to the hospital, the process of admittance is covered in detail. The central car crash is replayed in slow motion from every conceivable angle, with an obsessive verve that would make David Fincher blush. Shots are repeated, and the motions are slow. Sometimes it works, and creates an eerie, almost beautiful look, while other times the effect is more unintentionally funny. The script’s scope exceeds its budgetary means, and instead of fully embracing a microcosm telling of a larger idea (ala Night of the Living Dead) there’s ineffective hinting at a generally frightening whole. Most audiences are going to outpace the storytelling, and find themselves drawing the correct conclusions, which is unfortunate. With a small rewrite, a perhaps less focused plot, a dash of ambiguity, and a couple million more bucks, The Broken might be a good movie. Things are so close to being good I’m almost want to suggest folks buy the film with the assumption that writer/director Sean Ellis gets a second chance. It’s technically a French/British production, so perhaps an American remake?

With a decent budget, and a wide release in Europe, The Broken is the most impressive looking of all these Blu-ray films. The slick, steely visuals are sharp, the frame is clean, and excepting a few minor bouts with edge enhancement, there aren’t any noticeable compression issues. The film’s look is largely defined by pinpointed focus, so there’s usually a limited amount of fine detail in each shot, but these sections are well cut, and the softened backgrounds blend effectively without blocking. Like Butterfly Effect 3 and Borderland, The Broken features an aggressive DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix that is largely dependent on spooky ambience and musical score. This time the LFE channel is particularly belligerent, especially when called upon for scares. The front channels are noticeably more busy than the rears, and the center channel holds most of the practical sound effects, but the overall effect is still quite immersive. Special features include another Miss Horrorfest webisodes, and a collection of Lionsgate trailers.

After Dark Horrorfest Collection

Disc Four: The Graves and Zombies of Mass Destruction



The Graves


The Graves, next to maybe Zombies of Mass Destruction, is the most amateur looking of this year’s Horrorfest. Hand-made doesn’t always equal bad, and it’s great that such films get support, but there’s no denying that this flick looked like it cost less than my last trip to the grocery store. The funny thing is that The Graves also features two of the biggest horror stars this year, Tony Todd and Bill Moseley, who actually seem to be having some fun. The film, which sees two comic book loving, sexy sisters wondering into an Arizona desert tourist trap, is the directorial debut of comic creator Brian Pulido (Lady Death, Evil Ernie, both of which are featured in the film), and follows the basic plot and tone of Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses (which was already an ‘homage’ to Texas Chain Saw Massacre). Once the plot gets moving Pulido introduces some overt supernatural elements, which sets it a bit apart from Zombie’s film, which left the supernatural stuff ambiguous (still, even after this point the similarities are pretty thick). The amateur cast isn’t bad, though their dialogue is often grating or unnecessary, and Pulido uses his desert locals to decent effect (I personally enjoyed catching glimpses of stuff I used to drive by when I was in college), but the derivative elements overshadow the scares by a heavy measure. If the budget is as low as I’m assuming, The Graves is a fun enough exercise, with great title sequences, but not worth going out of your way to see.

This 1.78:1, 1080p transfer is a minor improvement on the DVD release, which was already surprisingly crisp for such an otherwise cheap looking movie. There are a couple different brands of video quality, including some camcorder style scenes, but things are relatively consistent, at least in terms of compression artefacts or edge-enhancement. Fine details are clear, contrasting elements are sharp-edged, and colours are reasonably noiseless, though not particularly vibrant. Oddly enough, the utter clarity of the transfer somehow manages to make the film look lower rent than the less clean looking DVD release. The new DTS-HD MA 5.1 sound is lacking even moderate production values, but even the bargain basement sound effects and music fill the track with enough noise to appreciate some directional effects, and some crunchy kill effects. The on-set sound is a little clunky, but the obviously post-dubbed dialogue is plenty clear. The stereo and surround elements aren’t exactly naturally mixed with the centered elements, but there’s still a decent sense of immersion, especially during the supernatural tinged post-murder scenes. I don’t recall exactly where the DVD’s audio freaked out, but I didn’t notice any directional problems here, so I’m thinking they were fixed.

This disc features more extras than any other disc in the collection, beginning with two commentary tracks. The first track features director Pulido solo, and is a solid source of ongoing behind the scenes information. The second track features producer Francisca Pulido and director of photography Adam Goldfine, and is actually quite a bit of laidback fun. Other extras include audition reels (5:00, SD), ‘Plan to Actual’ (live action storyboards, 5:50, SD), ‘Spot the Gnome’ (1:20, SD), ‘ The Graves: Behind the Scenes’ (20:40, SD), ‘Sound Designing The Graves’ (5:00, SD), a music video, and trailers.

Zombies of Mass Destruction


Zombies and politics clearly mix, but without a genuinely original take filmmakers should probably avoid the subject. Zombies of Mass Destruction goes for the throat in terms of politics, opting out of any subtext or subtlety. The direct approach actually out-unsubtles Land of the Dead and Fido, which says something for setting it apart, but still doesn’t compare to Joe Dante’s Homecoming. The plot centers around a conservative island town of Port Gamble in the very conservative year of 2003. Our leads are an Americanized Iranian girl dealing with her identity, a gay couple, and a sensitive kid trapped in a super right-wing family. The characters are oversimplified, the actors are sometimes gratingly amateur, and the jokes are usually groaners. The physical comedy and gore is pretty over-the-top, which certainly helps in terms of watchability, but the heavy-handed, and derivative elements burn the whole thing out in about 20 minutes. A few things work (the redneck dad interrogating the American born Iranian girl is good for a few giggles, the mayoral candidate argument is a good reuse of the Night of the Living Dead ‘fight for control’ trope, and the curly haired gay boyfriend clearly has a screen presence), but for the most part I’d suggest zombiphiles just watch Dawn of the Dead and Braindead again instead. I’ll add that a second viewing went better than the first.

Zombies of Mass Destruction is another one of the cheaper films in the After Dark collection (which is saying something), but it looks pretty good in HD video, and more like a real movie than The Graves. Colours are fuller and more stylized than the DVD release, whites are clean, and blacks are usually deep. Edges are sharp, details are reasonable, and the consistent fine grain actually helps the production values. The DTS-HD MA audio is just as problematic as the DVD’s DD track. Dialogue is always perfectly centered, but the centered sound effects bleed into the stereo channels (including the actor’s breathing), and the rear channels are more or less silent. The stereo channels echo quite a bit too, and the dialogue is on-set recorded for the most part, which makes for a somewhat tinny sound. There’s also some high end distorted when characters scream. The music sounds warm and clean enough, but also has a bit of a reverb problem. Extras include ‘The Making of ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction’ (6:00, SD), which reveals that the film is a surprisingly personal project, and a trailer.


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