Death Row (US - DVD R1)
Gabe's on lock down, and forced to watch another Kevin Van Hook movie...
There was only one survivor of the Isla del Roca prison riots, and his tale is one of terror and legend. Not deterred by this, a group of nubile twenty-somethings take a trip to the abandoned prison to shoot a documentary (using an itty bitty handheld camera). Meanwhile, a group of criminals stops in the prison to regroup and hide from the cops. Terrible events begin almost immediately as the deranged ghost inmates dispatch of the visitors in gory ways. Rinse and Repeat.
Watching a Kevin Van Hook movie is like watching a really bad impersonator who you can't help but root for in spite of an overwhelming desire to see him flattened by a Mack truck. He's seen enough movies and been on plenty of sets as a special effects guy to know what a movie is. He knows what a movie looks and sounds like, he probably even knows what a movie smells like, and he does his best to make one of his own. Van Hook's problem isn't one of not being able to practice his craft; his problem is that he doesn't have an imagination of his own. He's really good at remembering other movies, and makes good use of some of the better moments.
Like Voodoo Moon and The Slayer (the other two Van Hook flicks I've caught), Death Row recycles its plot, images and characters from other films. I'm not going to bother citing examples because I'm sure you've already thought of six or seven based on the synopsis. The dialogue in all three of these films is so bad (and clichéd, don't forget clichéd) that it almost seems impossible. It's almost poignant. It's like someone dared Van Hook and his co-writer (that's right, this one took two guys working on it) to come up with the most banal wording in the history of screenwriting. Because my opinion on the film has already been made more or less obvious, I'll take some time to relay some of that awful dialogue.
"You've done nothing but huff and puff since I met you."
"Then maybe it's time I blew your house down. Woof."
"I've seen some things that are pretty hard to explain..."
"Genius, that's the understatement of the year."
"You get off on touching other people's buttons?"
"Only when they’re as big as yours."
"I'm not feeling myself today"
"Yeah, I don't think you'll be feeling much of anyone else anytime soon."
On the 'not-so-bad-you'll-throw-up' side there is some really over the top gore here. It isn't a total loss. Dare I say Death Row (which by the way, is not to be confused with another horror film called Death Row that was made just after this one) is even spitefully entertaining? Is it worth watching such dreck for five or six gory kills? One robber is squeezed through the prison bars (cough Wishmaster II cough cough), another is diced in a license plate cutting machine, yet another is sliced in half by a fan.
There are a few funny cameos (Danny Trejo as a priest, not a prisoner, in a prison movie? Kind of genius, I'll admit), the girls are sexy (one even ends her life in her underwear), and the special effects are cheesy enough to charm a bit (though some of them are actually a bit impressive considering the budget). The actors really can't act beyond the dialogue, but they aren't terrible, at times Busey even seems to be enjoying himself. The film isn't (unfortunately) as unrelentingly bad as some of Uwe Boll's 'best' work, and it actually makes for a less entertaining film. It sounds funny, but Death Row isn't actually bad enough to garner your attention.
Apparently the old proverb is wrong, and you really can polish a chunk of excrement. Death Row, despite having next to no visual style its own, looks really good on DVD. The movie looks like it was filmed on some kind of non-film source, and almost has that weird 'soap opera' cleanness to it. Colours are vibrant and accurately produced, black levels are rich and deep, and the contrast is surprisingly soft. There's little or no grain, zero artefacts, and even compression issues like blocking and low level noise are few and far between. The real story is the detail level, which really shocked me considering the source material. This transfer comes far too close to reference level for my comfort, frankly.
The interesting thing about Death Row's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack's shortcomings is that they almost all seem to lie in the original sound design. The flick's sound is sparse and thin. There is plenty of bass on the track, but a lot of sound effects and cues that could use the extra punch are without. The surround effects work, but are all too obvious considering how inactive the surround channels are overall. There's no subtlety to the sound design, it's either on or off. Dialogue is clear enough, and without distortion even when folks are screaming their heads off. The music is so average and forgettable I find myself unable to recall a single cue.
Extras start out with another Kevin Van Hook commentary track. Van Hook's utter seriousness on his Voodoo Moon track almost knocked my eyeballs outta my skull with rolling. His ego far exceeded the film's actual value. Here he still calls his work 'nice' a lot, and has little to no humour in his tone (though I have a feeling now that that's just the way he talks), but spends more time praising the performances and crew work. This time around the director is joined by two actors, Jamie Elle Mann (hot) and Scott Whyte (from Mighty Ducks 2). Van Hook still rules the commentary, as out actors don't really seem to have must interest in speaking.
‘An Axe to Grind’ is a brief making-of featurette, which was probably used to sell the film to distributors. All the actors lie through their teeth when they tell us that the script was so great they had to do the movie (admit guys, you needed the money), and Van Hook looks like he hasn't slept in a month. It's followed by another featurette about the making of the license plate cutting death. It's called ‘License to Thrill’, for no apparent reason. I'll admit it's a really good make-up.
There is a sole extended scene, which is erroneous plotting at a time when the film really needs to be getting to its finish. This is followed by a photo gallery and a conceptual art gallery, and the usual Anchor Bay horror release trailers (most of which are Van Hook productions).
Death Row isn't as unwatchably awful and insulting as Voodoo Moon, and it moves pretty briskly (one of the ultimate no-nos of bad horror is slow pace). The film isn't scary, or even remotely suspenseful, but there are worse ways to waste your time. I wouldn't recommend spending money on this, but if you get the chance to see it for free I say go for it.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 6th March 2007
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Extras: Director/Star Commentary, "An Axe to Grid", “License to Thrill”, Deleted Scene, Stills, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Kevin Van Hook
Cast: Jake Busey, Stacy Keach, Jamie Elle Mann,
Length: 90 minutes
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