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Last year, LionsGate films released eight independent horror films in select American theaters. It was a cool idea that smacked of material dumping, and it wasn't entirely successful, but one of the films, The Abandoned, was popular enough to garner a solo theatrical release later. The other seven films are now being dropped on DVD. Though available separately, I've decided to review these films as a set.

Unrest


Four medical students start a gross anatomy class, and hesitantly slice into their chosen body. Alison (Corri English), a student in off the waiting list, begins to feel a profound presence from the cadaver. A strict atheist, Alison is confused by these feelings and does her best to ignore them, until fresh bodies start showing up in the dissection lab. Now she has to solve the mystery behind this scarred body and tortured soul before the death toll mounts further.

After Dark Horrorfest
Unrest is a nice little surprise, and a good example of a young filmmaker writing and directing what he knows. Jason Todd Ipson was a real life med student, and he uses that inherently creepy world to build an effective little horror film. The film works in these reality-based moments. The strangest and most macabre elements are all reality based (and I would not have believed it had I not looked it up), and Ispon is wise to exploit such a deeply disturbing aspect of modern medicine.

I was most impressed with film's actors, the leads in particular. One thing I never thought to expect from the After Dark Horrorfest was good acting, but here it is, in the first of the films I watch. Love interest Scot Davis is the best, and very funny without being a clown. He's so engaging that I swore I'd seen him in something before, but I haven't, which to me says the guy's got movie star written all over his face.

The problem with the film, and the problem with most films that are most effective in their realistic elements, is that the supernatural elements are too textbook and not very interesting. The film also feels overlong, even at only 88 minutes. Unrest would make a great episode of Masters of Horror, but falters a bit as a stand-alone feature. Probably the best film overall in the set.

Reincarnation


Several years ago, a professor brutally murdered his family, and the guests and staff in the Ono Kanko Hotel to prove his theory that souls are reincarnated after death. Now, a hotshot director has decided to make a movie about the incident. Young actress Nagisa is hired onto the production, and immediately starts having visions of the fateful night. Meanwhile, a group of seemingly unrelated people are being attacked and enslaved by ghosts of the tragic slaughter.

After Dark Horrorfest
Could someone please get director Takashi Shimzu a decent script? Please? Reincarnation is just another rehash of other, better films, and has absolutely nothing interesting to add to the genre. It lifts its basic concept from Kenneth Branagh's Dead Again, not to mention its twist. It also has a sort of autobiographical slant concerning its director, a horror icon, like Wes Craven's New Nightmare (not to mention Ulli Lommel's Boogeyman 2 and Lucio Fulci's Cat in the Brain). On top of this, Reincarnation steals most of its final act from Peter Jackson's The Frighteners.

Shimzu isn't a bad director, at all, and I was impressed with his work on Marebito (though the film kinda stunk), but he's a director with no direction his own. He's remade his biggest hit, Ju-On, effectively five times now, and stuck himself in a sad little rut. Reincarnation is an obvious representation of this rut, perhaps even a cry for help. It is devoid of any real scares because anyone who's seen any of the Shimzu's previous work knows exactly what's coming. Overall the film is boring, and I was squirming until the end.

There are some arresting images though (the wide eyed puppet is pretty nightmarish), and Shimzu proves he knows how to cut a scene. He has skills, I admit it. The problem is that these images aren't enough to carry an unoriginal and overall dull script, and they aren't particularly scary. They're kind of creepy, but I'm more inclined to call them 'cool'. Maybe the guy should make a big budget action film. Maybe it's the horror genre that's his bane. All I can say is you've seen this before, and you'll see it again. You could do a whole lot worse, but I'm not sure why you'd even want to bother at this point.

Dark Ride


Once upon a time, a psycho in a mask killed two cute 12-year-old twins in a dark ride (one of those sit down rides that wheels the rider through a darkened haunted house like set-up). Several years later, some college kids decide to spend the night in the condemned ride while on a road trip. Meanwhile, the masked killer escapes the mental institution and finds his way back to the dark ride.

After Dark Horrorfest
Dark Ride was pretty much what I expected from all the films in the After Dark collection - a same old, same old slasher flick that follows the Halloween blueprint to the letter. There's a pre-credit sequence that sets up our masked killer's past, there's a present day group of young and nubile kids that find their way into his clutches while acting promiscuously and taking drugs, and one of the kids is a virgin loser type that will most likely survive through the end credits, though I won't spoil that one (though I'm sure most of you will guess that twist before it ever arrives).

I like slasher movies, but I like them better when they aren't so paint by numbers. There isn't a hint of irony or post-modern reflection, with the exception of one character's insistence on talking about classic movies and TV. There isn't any bright dialogue or likeable characters to make the time between brutal slayings a little less trying, but don't tell the writers that, I'm sure they think their forced, Kevin Smith style diatribes are hilarious. The bad acting doesn't help, of course, especially when decent acting saves most of the other films in the series from total damnation.

The scares are often mishandled, and though the gore is gruesome, the kills are poorly paced. Director Craig Singer finds some nice camera angles, and there's some pretty colour and light play, but the pace is relentlessly slow and painfully repetitive. Not once during this overextended Tales From the Crypt episode did I feel a twinge of fear, because every scare that wasn't telecast in neon was stolen from a better movie.

If you like clichés and really want to root for the bad guy, because the good guys are so hate worthy and idiotic that you want to see their entrails, then look no further. If you've already seen Halloween, Friday the 13th, and most importantly, Tobe Hooper's Fun House (which this film bares more than a passing resemblance to), and are more than a little sick of hacks remaking the same films over and over again, then skip it. If you end up stuck with the film due to purchasing the entire set, simply skip to the 40 or 50-minute mark to watch two really good kills.

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.

After Dark Horrorfest
Gravedancers is a perfectly entertaining and perfectly forgettable little horror film. It scores the most famous cast (we're talking high B-level), and sports the most refined digital effects sequence of any of the seven films. It also features a nice mix of desaturated and supersaturated digital grading, which adds a glossy sheen to the whole thing and in the end

The unfortunate thing is that, like all the films in the collection, Gravedancers features an entirely unoriginal plot. It compensates with the title gimmick, but really only runs on classy A/V and good performances. The plot is a mix of Dark Castle's 13 Ghosts remake and the Ring series. The film is enjoyably retro, and reminded me a lot of lighter horror films from the mid-'80s like The Poltergeist series, and Ghostbusters (with a touch of Chris Cunningham, who really needs to make a feature length horror film his own). 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', which just builds on the whole lighter retro feel. It also ends with a nice take on the classic 'Hail Mary' shot every basketball movie ever seems to end with.

I'm not being too easy on the flick just because our very own Dustin McNeill (or is it McNeil, as stated in the credits), and there is a very distinct possibility that the really bad movies in the series just dropped my expectation too low, but I honestly enjoyed Gravedancers. I'd say a rental recommendation, and one of the films in the set that that bumps the total score to the average category.

Wicked Little Things


Another flick, another flashback, this one in a mine. Miners send little kids into little holes to place little sticks of dynamite. The kids are killed, and haunt the 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.

After Dark Horrorfest
Again, not that any of the other films in this set are particularly original, but next to Dark Ride, Wicked Little Things has the worst case of cliché disease. Characters are constantly entering the dark corners alone, looking for trouble when they should be 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 good looking, it's got some ace lighting, and there's a pretty gold or blue tint to the whole thing. The acting is also top tire, but the characters are so broadly drawn that I just barely didn't hate them. I'd like them to survive, but I wasn't going to be too broken up if the kiddies hacked them up and ate them. The story 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, honestly, but I've never thought evil kids were particularly scary. Seriously, I'd just slap them out of my way. Moreover, the film is quite often unintentionally funny. Kids slaughtering people with pickaxes and shovels (especially with broad sound effects) is comic gold.

The Hamiltons


Party of Five meets The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with the Hamiltons, a family without parents and a dark secret. Their youngest brother isn't too into the kidnapping and killing people thing, and protests matters by making an angsty home movie for the school.

The Hamiltons is the most independent and low budgeted of all the films in the collection. It is the most amateur production, but it's actually more of what I expected from the set. Despite of all this, the film actually looks pretty good. The directors, who go by the name 'The Butcher Bros.', know not to overshoot their budget, and more or less prove they know what they're doing. They could use some guidance in the field of photography, as dialogue heavy scenes are often poorly cropped and flat. When the brothers are more excited about a scene they seem to put more effort into building it visually.

After Dark Horrorfest
My problems with the movie are its unbelievably mopie nature, and the fact that it doesn't really have a plot. I can excuse the occasionally stilted acting, and the flat compositions, but the flick takes itself a bit too seriously. Basically this is a collection of 'shocking' and 'uncomfortable' ideas (murder, cannibalism, rape, incest, homosexuality), mixed with the build up to the Hamilton family revelation (which most of us will guess right away, though that may be the point). Besides this, nothing really happens.

Films like Taxi Driver and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer deal with intimate descents into derangement without a real 'plot' of sorts, and I'm pretty sure that's what The Butcher Brothers were going for here. They want their audience to be deeply disturbed, they want to get under skin and twist it around, but there's too much Degrassi angst for me to take it seriously. I don't really care enough about the interworkings of a family of psychos to sit through something without any real narrative structure.

Some filmmakers can pull off a nightmare, a real, believable nightmare, but The Hamiltons aren't genuine enough to get my goat. They're all either too whiney, or slow-witted, or stereotypically 'bad' to be effective. I was very aware that I was watching a movie, I was very aware of the budget limitations, and I was very aware that pretty much nothing was happening. I look at this and I see a decent promotional reel, and if given the proper resources I'm sure these fellas could make a real good horror flick, but this isn't it. I recommend George Romero's Martin instead.

Penny Dreadful


Penny is a young woman traumatized by the car accident that killed both of her parents. Her psychiatrist, a rather famous one, takes her on a road trip to the location of the accident. On the road they accidentally hit a man, and agree to give him a ride. He proceeds to kill the good doctor and torture Penny.

After Dark Horrorfest
Penny Dreadful starts out strong. It has an inspired opening credit sequence, and a very nightmarish flashback revealing the purpose behind the title heroine's phobia. The early daylight scenes are gorgeously photographed, and there is a cameo from Michael Berryman. Quickly, however, the film dives into a deep pool of mediocrity. It is relentlessly convoluted, and the filmmaking not adept enough to quite overcome this obvious nature. To put our heroine in her nightmare scenario we have to suspend our disbelief, and in this case I was just not willing to do that.

Like other films in the series, this one belongs in the tighter box of the 30-minute to one-hour format. The tale really drags, to the point of boredom. It isn't an awful idea for a horror story, but the added elements that stretch it to a full running length are extraneous. I, personally, didn't want to leave the torturous and claustrophobic confines of the car, though these become tiresome as well. This could've been an air tight, Hitchcockian thriller, but it ends up another slasher movie, one with a low body count.

At the end of this list of seven features I'm left with no original ideas, and only one original twist on an already done to death idea (that would be Unrest. Penny Dreadful is no different, and I'd just suggest viewers rewatch the original Hitcher instead. This feature is well enough made, but ends up being too bland to ever recommend for anyone other than the lead actress' friends and family, as she's not bad (though her character is one nearly impossible to identify with).

Video


I was going to go through each film individually, but there's little point as these are very similar transfers. The two films that fair the best are Unrest and Gravedancers, but this is mostly due to the quality of their photography, not to mention the fact that both films share lots of bright hues. Gravedancers mutes most of its colours, and looks pretty sharp, but the more colourful features, like Dark Ride, fare pretty well. Flesh tones are a little off on the darker films, and reds have some noise issues on every feature.

After Dark Horrorfest
Black levels are very deep, and appear as black rather than bluish. The problem is that so much effort seems to have been put into these blacks that detail suffers. The best example of this 'too dark' issue is Wicked Little Things (I tried to get a couple screenshots of little zombie kid mayhem, but neither of my attempts seem to have worked), I honestly had no idea what was going on. Overall though, this deep blackness helps the films aesthetic. Penny Dreadful has a similar problem, but is shot better, and its contrast keeps it from being overtly black.

The Hamiltons suffers the most overall, but considering how very low its budget was, even in comparison to these other features, it's hard to complain. It's big problem is its bluish blacks and some compression enhancement.

LionsGate has managed to do right by fans overall, as every film features minimal heavy grain and artefacting, and details are pretty impressive for the most part. Reincarnation, an older film acquired for the festival from Japan, is the only film in the set that doesn't appear to belong visually, but still manages to look better than the vast majority of medium budget J-Horror output I've ever seen.

Audio


One redeeming factor to pretty much every film here is the presence of a big and classy soundtrack. There isn't much in the way of real originality, but even the lower budget entrees sound like a million bucks. At least a couple hundred thou. Anyway, every film is presented as a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (even The Hamiltons). Some come off better than others, and each presentation is only as strong as its film's final mix.

After Dark Horrorfest
Bass levels are all heavy with little distortion. Surround channels are active and effects are accurate. Sometimes sound effects are clear enough to sound downright artificial, but this is most likely due to the fact that a lot of these films use stock sound effects. I noticed no obvious distortion in dialogue in any of the features. Overall, very professional.

Extras



Unrest


Unrest has a very invaluable commentary track. Jason Todd Ipson and his editor assure us what out of the film's many grisly horrors are real. It turns out that even the most unbelievable of the hospital processes are real. Ipson took very little artistic license. The track is honest, informative, and entertaining, and I'm looking forward to seeing the crew's next feature. Look for the director cameo and his self-deprecating reply.

The commentary is followed by a brief featurette that doesn't achieve much beyond the commentary other than putting faces to the creative types. It's very professional, and is followed by a collection of trailers.

Reincarnation


Reincarnation begins with an introduction by director Takashi Shimizu, who attempts to warn his audience that this film will be much different from Ju-On. Apparently he didn't get the memo.

The film itself is bereft of a commentary, but the disc features the longest making-of featurette in the collection. It runs almost an hour, but is still a little too much a sales pitch. It's nice to see the actors and actresses enjoying their work, and the onset footage is intriguing enough, but after already sitting through an hour and a half of movie that bored me I found myself looking at the clock.

After Dark Horrorfest
There is an interesting interview with Shimizu, which only runs about 10 minutes, but reveals a very down to earth guy who seems to believe in his work without being a snob about it. He also has a strong sense of companionship with his peers. This is followed by a few extraneous deleted scenes, including an alternate opening, with commentary from Shimizu, his producer, and his lead actress. The commentary is quite a bit of fun, and the participants are in high spirits.

Dark Ride


Continuing the tradition of the other discs in the set, this disc has a few short featurettes, a commentary, and trailers. This disc also features some storyboards.

The commentary features director Craig Singer and his co-writer Robert Dean Klein, and they both prove to be knowledgeable, but a little too heavy on the self-congratulatory angle. The track does start off on the wrong foot when Singer states that his film is an original because he never liked Hooper's Funhouse, even going as far as to say he specifically didn't like Stan Winston's monster mask. This proves that he knew enough about the film to prove that even if it wasn't a direct influence (which I doubt), it was something he probably should've taken into account. Regardless, saying your film is an original because you didn't like a similar film is just silly.

The deleted scenes are many. The funny thing is that the film would be better with most of them left in. The saggy first act should've been cut, not more murder and mayhem. The funniest thing of all is that these scenes actually end up filling in some of the film's biggest plot holes. There is an alternate version of the opening that was cut for rating reasons, or more accurately because watching a 12 year-olds intestines being removed was too much for the producers. I can't blame this one on the director.

After Dark Horrorfest
There's another featurette here, and like all the others it serves as little less than an elongated trailer. This is followed by a montage of behind the scenes on the gore effects called Behind the Mask (behind the mask there's an unattractive actor, apparently), set to bitchin' music. This is followed by a storyboard montage, and finished out with the usual collection of trailers.

Gravedancers


One of the first things one might notice about the special features screen on Gravedancers is the fact that not only does the film have a commentary track, but the making of, the trailer, and the deleted scenes also have commentary tracks. The trailer commentary actually makes sense because the original trailer was a selling tool made to get the budget to make the final film, and deleted scenes often feature a commentary, but the making of commentary is weird. It's probably there because there was still some behind the scenes stuff to talk about after the film was done.

These are the best extras in the collection, in volume at the very least. Unrest was my favourite film commentary, but this one is equally informative and charmingly self-deprecating. These are intelligent and honest filmmakers. The director has even made up a drinking game to go along with his film – take a drink every time you see a lit lamp.

The making-of, A Grave Undertaking, is a little more entertaining than some of the others in the set, but still comes down back patting and selling the flick. The commentary does add another dimension, but makes one wonder why these folks wouldn't just make a longer and more involved documentary. There is also a brief featurette covering the creation of the films various grinning ghosts. It also features a commentary, and only a commentary.

After Dark Horrorfest
The deleted scenes are better with the commentary, as they're contextualized. As per usual, these are all good cuts, and the scenes are not missed in the final film, which already verges on overstaying its welcome. The DVD finishes with a quick storyboard comparison and the usual LionsGate trailers.

Wicked Little Things


Wicked Little Things has wicked few extras. There's a pretentious commentary track with director J.S. Cardone and actress Lori Heuring. Heuring isn't particularly pretentious, but she feeds Cardone's self-importance. The track is shockingly serious, and Cardone even goes so far as to downplay the fact that his film is a horror film, as if he's above the supposed lowbrow title. There is some good information though, including the fact that Wicked Little Things started its life as a Tobe Hooper film called Zombies. Despite original press releases, this is the disc's only extra.

The Hamiltons


As before, things start with a commentary. This one features the directors and actor Cory Knauf. It's one of those tracks that comes at you quick, and does its job efficiently. If you have a question about an actor, a location, art design, you'll probably have it answered. At the beginning of the track it is revealed that a more experimental, Blair Witch like film was original scheduled to be made. It's too bad they didn't stick with it.

After Dark Horrorfest
Next up are the deleted scenes, which fill in a few unimportant events and build some characters. They aren't bad scenes, but their deletion is good considering that the film drags as is. The scenes look good, are anamorphically enhanced, but have unfinished sound mixes. There is no featurette here (thankfully, I'm a little warn out here), but there is an amusing blooper reel, and more of the same trailers.

Penny Dreadful


This one's thankfully bereft of a commentary. No offense to the filmmakers, but I don't think I could take another one. The disc is only concerned with advertising, and features a brief EPK, a music video by some boring metal group called Sanity, and the trailers.

Overall


So the film series isn't a success. I wish LionsGate better luck next time. My advice is that they find films that really are too shocking for average cinemagoers, or at least some films with real substance. It doesn't have to be one or the other, but I'm guessing it probably will be.

After Dark Horrorfest
Unrest: 6/10
Reincarnation: 5/10
Dark Ride: 3/10
Gravedancers: 6/10
Wicked Little Things: 5/10
The Hamiltons: 4/10
Penny Dreadful: 4/10


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