Ghost House Underground: Volume Two (US - BD)
Gabe couples all four of the second round Ghost House Underground discs
Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert’s Ghost House Pictures and Lionsgate have once again gotten together to release a series of otherwise unreleased (in the US) horror movies straight to video. Last year’s batch included eight films, and most of them were very bad. I ran out of time before I was able to review all of them, but there were two better than bad entries – Dance of the Dead and The Substitute. This second wave of flicks is half as big, but manages a better average of good to bad. Lionsgate also saw fit to release this batch on Blu-ray as well as standard DVD.
Offspring is cheap. Really cheap. Cheaper than the majority of the past and present ‘Ghost House Underground’ and ‘After Dark Horrorfest’ titles. Like I said, I still haven’t watched the other Jack Ketchum adaptations, so I can’t vouch for their production values, but this particular project reminds me of the truly independent horror films studios like Synapse and Dark Sky pick up. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, per se (there are some great shoestring horrors out there), but audiences will want to know what they’re in for, and it certainly isn’t a studio experience. Like many no-budget flicks the cast is a mixed bag, but overall pretty decent. The bad apples definitely sour the pie. The direction is clearly a bigger problem, as is the editing, the cinematography and the production design. There’s something to be said for some of the handheld camera work and focus pulls, but the film lacks texture and flair. Gore fans should be pretty happy with the vast degree of onscreen grue (I’m surprised by the R-rating), but those looking for a scary experience will likely be disappointed by the film, which is often a lot more funny than frightening. There’s some good mood that comes out of the darkness at the very end of the film, but it’s all too little too late.
I come to this particular table knowing relatively nothing about popular horror author Jack Ketchum. I even have copies of The Lost and The Girl Next Door sitting here, I just haven’t watched them. As an introduction to the man’s work Offspring is a disappointment. The generic title practically defines the experience. The basic story is a relatively generic feral family tale in the vein of The Hills Have Eyes, and there aren’t any flippant, ironic, or idiosyncratic details to liven the pot, save perhaps the use of soda can fangs. There are plenty of genuinely disturbing touches throughout, but nothing I haven’t seen before. There also isn’t quite enough plot to fill out a feature length film. Fans might blame the filmmakers for the quality of adaptation, but it’s hard to shift things when the credits tell us that Ketchum himself wrote the screenplay. One can blame the director for the lack of style, the editors for some of the bad pacing, and the actors for some of the lacking character depth, but I think even Ketchum’s fans have to recognize the problems with the source material.
Another extremely generic title (and one that seems interchangeable with Offspring), The Children is a sort of Yuletide zombie version of Village of the Damned. This is more what I was expecting out of the Ghost House Underground series. Clearly a British production, The Children features decent production values, definitively professional actors, and a decent sense of pacing. The basic concepts are pretty unremarkable, but the filmmakers almost immediately capture a sense of dread, and the characters are more realistic and layered than even most big budget terror fodder. For comparison sake I notice some parallels between the bickering adults in both this film, and the entertainingly schlocky Devil Times Five (which The Children shares a lot in common). The interweaving character dramas are quite predictable, but are really only present to put the audience into an anxious mindset. The film seems too humourless for its own good, but the relentless slow-burn mostly works to set The Children apart from other plays on the zombie theme. It also helps that a solid 30 minutes of anxious build-up before something genuinely shocking occurs. Honestly the shock is a bit of a relief. Buzzing quick cuts and a shot of gore finally reminded I wasn’t actually locked in a room with sickened children.
Petty complaints concerning concept originality aside, I’m afraid I must highly recommend The Children. The film works hard to put the audience through a genuinely emotional horror experience, and it earns its scares to the bone. Even the frustrating character moments work to ratchet the almost overwhelming anxiety. Horror envelopes all aspects of the story, from disease, to threat of murder, and the terror of finding oneself forced to murder children in self defense. Director Tom Shankland creates his mood through alternating dynamics of dread and shock, and some wonderfully effective quick cut montages of mayhem among cinematographer Nanu Segal leering, snail’s pace compositions. Every time I thought the film was losing steam it managed to dust itself off for another round of classy close-ups, vicious violence (most of the gore is implied enough to not push the R-rating too far), and tight-laced suspense. I hold my breath in anticipation for this team’s next project.
Despite Val Kilmer’s involvement in Thaw, and Jack Ketchum’s fan base, The Seventh Moon is probably the most anticipated among the film in this four film collection because it comes from writer/director Eduardo Sanchez. The Blair Witch Project may be a little less exciting ten years on (my God, has it really been ten years?), but it was a damn important film, and was a damn good idea. It’s almost unimaginable, given Hollywood’s penchant for exploiting a popular thing, that nothing came of Blair Witch’s massive popularity. The cast and crew largely fell off the face of the earth, for all intents and purposes. Besides the relatively unseen Altered, Blair Witch was Sanchez’ only project as director (co-director in this case) leading up to Seventh Moon, which promised a half-decent budget, a Hollywood starlet (Amy Smart), and a seemingly interesting idea harking back to a Chinese myth concerning the full moon of the seventh lunar month. Unfortunately the actual film is a familiar trip into largely uninspired territory.
Seventh Moon starts on a Blair Witch like track – energetic and bickering (often annoying) twenty-somethings find themselves lost in a mysterious area steeped in creepy folklore (rural China standing in for rural America). The film is also largely shot with shaky, hand held cameras, though the cameras aren’t being held by the actors. The cinema verite style is occasionally effective, but ends up working against itself after a while, when the wildly waving cameras and excessive quick cuts become exhausting. Sanchez scores points for trying to leave the scares up to our imagination, but the stylistic choices are so extreme imagination is almost all we have to go on. More damning is the fact that his characters are so obnoxious it’s almost immediately impossible to care what happens to them. The fear factor quickly gives way to rooting for the creepy white men to find and kill the leads so they’ll stop arguing. Eventually it becomes clear that Seventh Moon is another generic survival horror kick featuring a subjective look. Simmered down to its most basic essence, it’s kind of Blair Witch with zombies, which is kind of ironic since George Romero’s Dairy of the Dead, and Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s [Rec] got a hold of the concept first. And the climax is so similar to The Descent Neil Marshal might want to call his lawyers.
It’s usually a really bad sign when a former A-lister like Val Kilmer headlines a movie that goes straight to video. Usually there’s a reason no studio was willing to put the proper theatrical release. The Thaw appears to suffer another major warning sign of a bad movie – really heavy hands – but writer/director Mark A. Lewis isn’t aiming for true class in this particular creature feature massacre. The set up features a sledge hammer take on the global warning phenomenon, but it’s made clear early that the filmmakers don’t really have any Roland Emmerick like environmental aspirations. The characters are made up mostly of average slasher fodder types (the adult characters are killed off really quick, and replaced with college kids and a token black guy), and the basic plot is a simple set up of disastrous monster movie dominos. Gruesome death and wriggling body horror ensue. The concept is actually quite clever as a comment on genre. The film is a modern version of a ‘50s sci-fi monster movie, replacing post-war fears with environmental fears. Instead of nuclear powered mutant lizards the monsters are prehistoric body-lice like creatures that are resurrected in the carcass of a mammoth thanks to thawing ice in the Artic.
The clichés come hard and fast, including the usual containment discussions, paranoid mistrust, and even a limb chopping scene, but like a decent slasher flick The Thaw embraces the clichés for the fun of it. Perhaps a real inversion of the stereotypes would make for a genuinely good flick, but throw-away fun is still fun. The body horror aspects aren’t of the existential or transformative variety, so comparisons to Cronenberg are next to impossible. There is a passing reference to STDs and SARS, but the film doesn’t play too much into any real modern disease analogs, it’s far more concerned with creepy crawlies and nasty mutilation effects. There are obvious call backs to Carpenter’s The Thing too, but the film’s closest recent cousins are Eli Roth’s over and underrated (depending on who you talk to) Cabin Fever, Toby Wilkins’ Splinter and Carter Smith’s The Ruins. If it had seen a theatrical release The Thaw would’ve been a disappointment, but as a random STV offering it’s definitely a fun time. Perhaps the Sci-Fi channel will pick it up.
Offspring is clearly a low-budget film, and the video quality doesn’t approach the technical clarity of most big and medium budget flicks. The transfer is only as good as the original material, which is to say it looks pretty sad. The 1080p transfer is largely unnecessary, but does deplete any obvious compression noise and blocking found on the DVD release. Colours are pretty dull, but relatively solid and clean. The black levels are defiantly lacking in most shots, and the overall contrast is a little too even to make for any sharpness in the deeper shadows. The clear problem is the lack of detail. Offspring is flat, fuzzy, and dulled likely thanks to choices in camera and film (imdb.com doesn’t give any technical specs), and a general lack of budget.
The Children is a really good looking movie, and features a nice array of indoor and outdoor images. The warmth indoors are naturalistic, bright and colourful, while the cold outdoors stand caked in white snow, and almost blackened trees. The simplistic, and almost black and white nature of the outdoor shots leads to a more interest high definition effect because the children all wear such bright primary colours, which pop against the dreary backdrop (as does blood). The transfer is far from perfect, but stands ahead of the DVD in the clarity of the brighter hues, along with more pronounced and consistent details, and deeper blacks. There’s noticeable grain throughout the transfer (which increases as night falls), bright colours layered upon each other create some unfortunate enhancements, and wide shots lose fine detail, but overall this is as fine a transfer as we can expect.
Seventh Moon is somewhat cinema-verite in its visual approach (not unlike The Blair Witch Project, and occasionally details are lost in the natural lighting and film grain. The visuals start with the extreme brightness of a Hong Kong market. The image is baked in yellows and reds to the point that details are lost in the flood. Pretty quickly the image crawls into extreme countryside darkness. Here details are lost in utter blackness, and pretty heavy grain (not to mention a lot of choppy editing and shaking cameras). The look (minus all the overwhelming verite camera work) is effective and daring, and appears to only be lit by moonlight, but the 1080p effort is a little unneeded. Even when the camera isn’t wiggling it’s often pulling focus to obscure the villains. The last act features more warm highlights, but details and clarity still aren’t sharp enough to require a Blu-ray viewing.
Thaw, the only 2.35:1 film in the set, doesn’t feature a single overlaying style, so there are many spots for the 1080p to shine in many different ways. The transfer is all over the place. Sometimes the details are mega-sharp, revealing realistic textures, and grotesque wounds. Other times the sweeping helicopter shots (possibly stock footage) are over-exposed, flat, and jagged. Once the film settles into a single location things become a little more consistent, but the seemingly purposeful white flairs and cool tints keep things understated. Sometimes shots appear a bit foggy, which could be a stylistic choice, but is more likely a side effect of literal fog on the lens due to the cold. The desaturated look leads to similar hues on all skin tones, clothing, landscape elements, etcetera, but allows for some standout reds. The popping whites are nice for the snow, and clear of the transfer’s overall grain, but makes for some unfortunately silly teeth. There is quite a bit of grain, but not a lot of compression noise. The image quality drops noticeably in quality towards the third act for little discernable reason (I guess night is falling), but things are still clear and clean enough to hold a definite advantage over the DVD release.
Offspring opens with a title sequence that is clearly meant to evoke comparisons to Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and the soundtrack follows suit with music-like bleeps and scratches in the place of score. The effect is a little silly rather than genuinely disconcerting, but the surround aspects are pretty exciting. Really this pseudo-music is the only aspect of the track worth getting excited about, as the obvious low budget nature mostly leads to flat and centered sound, with occasional spikes of clear post-production additions. The dialogue is clear, but inconsistent thanks to some obvious ADR. The music-ish stuff and the sound effects don’t even kind of match in volume or general aural quality. The mood effects do sound impressive, and quite bassy, but there’s still very little point in the track altogether, as simple Dolby Stereo would’ve sufficed.
The Children begins its surround sound work with lots of screaming children. It’s annoying, but effectively puts the audience on edge. I began to get a little sick to my stomach with anxiety there was so much screaming. The filmmakers use the repetitive smacking of a children’s xylophone to a similar effect. Basic directional elements are featured throughout the mix, most pertaining to movement throughout the location house, and in the woods outside. Sometimes the DTS-HD overstates the bass of something as simple as footsteps on stairs, but overall the movement effects are pretty subtle. There are occasional bits of added hyper-reality, but mostly the big audio is left to the musical score. The music is a mix of creepy and stabby, and perfectly rides the undercurrent of building aggression. The music mostly wells up on the suspense build-ups, but features plenty of hyperkinetic stab cues too, intensifying the overall dynamic.
Seventh Moon features a relatively naturalistic approach to sound design, in-keeping the grainy, natural light visuals. There’s a lot of natural ambient noise throughout the channels, which is mixed pretty far below the centered dialogue, and the almost exclusively ambient music. Directional sound plays an important part in Sanchez’ idealized scare attack, mostly pertaining to eerie voices taunting and hypnotizing our protagonists. There aren’t very many loud sound effects moments, which makes for a relatively naturalistic experience, but not a particularly frightening one. The music is the track’s most aggressive element by a wide measure, and often the only thing given any real LFE support. The big exception is the scene where the monster men break into the car the protagonists are hiding in, which is swimming in specific surround cues and some heavy bass. The music is a bit overstated on the track, but features a largely original voice, and is generally pretty neat.
Thaw clearly has a budgetary advantage over the other films, but doesn’t do a lot to make it obvious on the audio front. The opening credits are ablaze with the sounds of changing television channels and broken web connections, but the majority of the film is a largely frontal affair, running on centered dialogue and stereo music. The crawling bug sound effects are pretty typical, and relatively loud on the track when needed, but I’m a little surprised at the lack of surround involvement concerning them. There’s a sizable explosion at the end that gives the LFE a chance at some action, but there isn’t a lot of major action to fill out any major bass requirements. The musical score here is largely of the tradition scare show variety, and is sure to get the job done, but is mixed a little too low on the track to spike any major scares. At times the score bleeds into the rear channels somewhat abstractly, and sounds more like random sound effects than music, which is a little distracting.
Offspring starts with a commentary track featuring director/producer Andrew van den Houten, producer/cinematographer William M. Miller, and writer Jack Ketchum. It’s a fun enough commentary, and it features a lot of technical information, mostly thanks to Miller’s input. The commentators aren’t full of themselves, but they are under the impression that they’ve made a good film, and aren’t bothered to point out any of their clear problems. I don’t expect a whole bunch of false modesty, but I’m a little disappointed in the apparent lack of notice. Still all three members seem like genuinely nice guys and I feel bad for not liking their movie. The disc’s other extras include ‘Progeny: The Birth of Offspring’ (20:00, SD), a relatively informative overview of the production, ‘First Stolen’s Bailout’ (3:00, SD), eight webisodes, a gallery, a trailer, and a collection of mini-music video.
The Children starts with a series of featurettes. ‘The Making of The Children’ (19:30, SD) is a collection of raw set footage (mostly pertaining to stunts and gore effects), and set interviews, and is actually quite light-hearted. The set atmosphere does not match that of the final film even a little. A fun time, but there’s a lot of time wasted on inter-splicing scenes from the film itself. ‘Working with The Children’ (5:00, SD) continues the trend with a specific look at the child actors, who are quite talented. ‘Shooting on Location’ (3:40, SD) features a chat with the family that lives in the house and lot where the film was shot, a history behind the choice of the location, and a look at the actual shooting process. ‘Paul Hyett Talks Prosthetics’ (5:00, SD) is a pretty self explanatory title, assuming one knows Paul Hyett is the make-up effects man. It appears some of the gorier bits were perhaps trimmed for the R. ‘Snow Set Design’ (6:30, SD) looks at the process of creating fake snow for the production. ‘Inside Tom Shankland’s On-Set Lair’ (8:20, SD) finishes the featurettes off with a glance at the director’s little on-set apartment. Things are wrapped up with three deleted scenes, the same micro-videos, and trailers.
Seventh Moon starts with a boring commentary track featuring writer/director Eduardo Sanchez and actress Amy Smart. The tone of the track is entertaining enough, but the content is pretty reactive. Smart doesn’t seem to recall a lot of the film, and Sanchez mostly expresses gratitude to his collaborators. ‘Ghosts of Hong Kong’ (11:40, HD) is a collection raw of behind the scenes footage including location scouting, stunt practice, prosthetics, problems with the locals, and location shooting. ‘The Pale Figures’ (5:20, HD) covers the concept art and design behind the film’s monsters…which look and act like the creatures in The Descent. ‘Mysteries of the Seventh Lunar Month’ (7:30, HD) is a strange little featurette concerning the mythological history behind the film. I’m assuming it’s a mockumentary, meant to look like a cheap Mondo doc, and not the real thing. Things wrap up with more micro-videos and more trailers.
The Thaw closes things out with a basic making-of EPK (13:20, SD) that features cast and crew interviews, raw set footage, and several scenes from the film. The actors describe their characters and their arcs, and various crew members discuss the creature design, the genesis of the script, pre-production, production design, special effects, and environmental concerns. The relatively bare disc also features another micro-video, and more trailers.
Fortunately Lionsgate is once again issuing these Ghost House Underground features on separate Blu-ray and DVD discs, so no one has to own a copy of the bad stuff in order to get their hands on the good stuff. None of the films are great, but horror fans might want to check out the genuinely upsetting The Children or the fun and brief The Thaw. Offspring[i] is reserved for author Jack Ketchum’s fans, and fans of super low budget fair. I can’t imagine anyone enjoying [i]Seventh Moon. The video and audio qualities vary per disc, as do the extras, which are largely decent considering the usual treatment of these kind of films.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 6th October 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: English and Spanish
Extras: Cast and Crew Commentaries, Making-Of Featurettes, Music Videos, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Andrew van den Houten, Tom Shankland, Eduardo Sanchez, and Mark A. Lewis
Cast: Val Kilmer, Kyle Schmid, Aaron Ashmore, Martha MacIsaac, Dennis Chan, Amy Smart, Stephen Grey, Art Hindle, Pollyana McIntosh, Rachel Shelley, Eva Birthistle, Jeremy Sheffield, Stephen Campbell Moore
Length: 345 minutes
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