Indie Horror Bonanza II (US - BD RA)
Gabe checks out Haunter, Hellbenders, Last Days on Mars, and Beneath...
In 1986, 15-year-old Lisa (Abigail Breslin) and her family died in their home under sinister circumstances. Unable to move on, their spirits have continued to roam the house. And for nearly 30 years, they have had to live the same miserable day over and over, never thinking they're anything but alive. But now, Lisa has started noticing things that make her believe that she and her uncomprehending family are in fact ghosts. On top of that, she realizes that she must reach out from beyond the grave to help her living counterpart Olivia and her family avoid the same gruesome fate that Lisa and her loved ones suffered all those years ago. (From IFC Midnight’s official synopsis)
Writer/director Vincenzo Natali hasn’t been the most consistent genre filmmaker, but his name on the marquee always guarantees a unique movie experience. He earned respect with Cube when it was released in 1997, alongside a similarly high concept, low-budget sci-fi indie – Darren Aronofsky’s π. Aronofsky took a different route with his career and Natali’s next two films, Cypher and Nothing, didn’t get much notice. In the interim, Richard Kelly sort of snagged Natali’s cult credentials. Natali finally got his first wide US release with Splice in 2009, but that film didn’t make the money it deserved and his latest, Haunter, was once again relegated to a practically STV release in the US. Haunter is existentially frightening and features some gruesome images (nothing beyond PG-13, though the film is unrated), but it is effectively a fairytale in the vein of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth or Henry Selick’s Coraline. The always capable and ever maturing Abigail Breslin (who will hopefully escape the trials of child stardom to become a great grown-up performer) plays an angsty, yet plucky young lady who overcomes supernatural adversity on her road to adulthood. Most viewers will also see parallels to Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others or even Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day, though Lisa is aware of her plight as soon as the movie begins. The screenplay, by Matthew Brian King, is bolstered by naturalistic dialogue, moving performances, Natali’s strong sense of mood, and Michael Doherty’s brilliant editing, all of which help what could’ve been an extended episode of Goosebumps feel like a full-fledged cinematic experience.
Haunter was shot using Arri Alexa HD cameras and is presented in 1080p, 1.85:1 video. The transfer is very clean in support of Natali and cinematographer Jon Joffin’s soft photography. Details are limited by the glowing highlights and deep pools of utter blackness, but are still crisp when element separation is important (extreme textural close-ups in particular). The palette has some eclectic moments (Lisa’s room, for instance), but is effectively divided between the dead world with its sickly greens & golds and the living world, which is cooled by whites and baby blues. However, like many of IFC’s B-movie releases, there are some compression problems, chiefly some banding effects and jagged blends throughout the softest images. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is a spooky, dreamy, and aurally warm affair. There aren’t too many big, blasting moments, but the channels are pretty consistently busy with natural and supernatural ambience. Low volume levels play an important role in prepping the audience for the occasional jump scare, but the mix is almost never completely silent. Besides the humming background noise, delicate little effects also crackle through the stereo/surround speakers. Composer Alex Khaskin’s music often has an old-fashioned, music box/calliope sound that helps underline the children’s story motifs. Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’ suite also supports this theme. The extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette (20:40, HD), Natali’s complete storyboards in scrolling slideshow form (54:50, HD), a poster gallery with a single poster (for real), a trailer, and trailers for other IFC Midnight releases.
There are demons so terrible that no mortal man of God could successfully drive them back to Hell. The only option is for the exorcist himself to invite possession and then commit suicide, dragging along the demon to damnation - so the Augustine Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints – or Hellbenders – was formed. A group of elite, highly-trained exorcists, they live in a constant state of debauchery, so they will be ready to go to Hell at any moment. When an infernal Norse demon called Black Surtr escapes into New York City intent on cracking open the gates of Hell, the Hellbenders must use every ounce of their debauchery to battle the demon and save the planet from eternal damnation! (From Lionsgate’s official synopsis)
Not to be confused with Sergio Corbucci’s Joseph Cotton-starring spaghetti western classic, writer/director J.T. Petty’s Hellbenders follows a motley crew of character actors, including Clifton Collins Jr., Clancy Brown, Andre Royo, Dan Fogler, and Larry Fassenden (who directed Beneath, which appears at the bottom of this page), as they battle demons in an amusing, comic book fashion. I hadn’t even realized how common the Ghostbusters formula had become until presented with something this derivative. Every comedic vampire/demon/ghost-hunter trope you can think of is here – unlikely heroes, problems with authority figures, and an end of the world scenario. Petty reframes the clichés within a series of painful jokes that are supposedly funny because they’re so politically incorrect. Men of God acting ungodly cannot sustain an entire movie without further comedic output. One might assume that the cast is the only reason to care about this terminally underwhelming production, but Petty has earned the benefit of the doubt for two of his last four features – Mimic 3: Sentinel, a surprisingly good follow-up to Guillermo del Toro’s compromised Hollywood debut, and The Burrowers, an overlong, but otherwise impressive western/horror hybrid. His skills seem out of place with this material, despite having created it from the ground up with his original graphic novel. There’s zero sense of pacing (every scene that isn’t over-cut to maximize hipness overstays its welcome), which makes 85 episodic minutes drone on for an eternity.
Hellbenders was shot using Red Epic HD cameras for digital 3D release and this Blu-ray features both 3D and 2D 2.35:1, 1080p transfers. As per usual, I watched the 2D version for review. This is a strong and even transfer with very little filmic value. Except for some relatively expressive nighttime/possession-related palettes (nicely blended oranges and reds), the whole thing looks kind of like a television sitcom. Despite my problems with the blandness of the compositions, the image is plenty busy with crisp textures, tightly-separated colours, and nice, hard edges (not including the lower resolution DV shots that pop up during some of the transitional montages). Perhaps Petty and cinematographer Ryan Samul’s work is more impressive in 3D? The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is occasionally impressive, specifically when demons are doing their demon thing (spreading pestilence, screaming, throwing people around), but is generally as dry and empty as the imagery. The dialogue is usually clear, but inconsistent in terms of volume levels. Jeff Grace’s music lends the underwhelming imagery a sense of class and is the track’s most aggressive element. The extras include a commentary with Petty and cast members Clancy Brown & Andre Royo, God’s Dirty Work: The Making of Hellbenders (26:20, HD), ‘fly on the wall’ behind-the-scenes footage (7:30, HD), the uncut short films that are mixed into the transitional footage in the film (28:10, HD), a trailer, and trailers for other Lionsgate releases.
The Last Days on Mars
On the last day of the first manned mission to Mars, a crewmember of Tantalus Base believes he has made an astounding discovery – fossilized evidence of bacterial life. Unwilling to let the relief crew claim all the glory, he disobeys orders to pack up and goes out on an unauthorized expedition to collect further samples. But a routine excavation turns to disaster when the porous ground collapses and he falls into a deep crevice and near certain death. His devastated colleagues attempt to recover his body. However, when another vanishes, they start to suspect that the lifeform they have discovered is not yet dead. (From Magnolia’s original synopsis)
Like District 9 director Neill Blomkamp and Evil Dead (2013) director Fede Alvarez, director Ruairi Robinson got his start making sci-fi shorts, where he appears to have developed a strong technical skill-set. Unfortunately, his feature debut, The Last Days on Mars, is built around a dull, derivative screenplay that would flummox even the most accomplished director. Robinson manages to create something of an effective mood, but also tends to lose the action in wobbly camerawork, undefined geography, and murky lighting. Writer Clive Dawson ( The Bunker), working from Sydney J. Bounds’ short story The Animators, does a decent job establishing his blue collar astronauts with pleasantly banal exposition, but is more interested in making his characters gritty, tortured bores than crafting likable people worth rooting for. Of course, the bigger issue is that the plotline is a mash-up of post- Alien sci-fi/horror tropes and zombie movie clichés. Worst of all, Robinson sticks to a dour tone, robbing the film of colourful amusements of Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires or the Dr. Who TV movie, Waters of Mars (both of which share a number of plot points with The Last Days on Mars. Even John Carpenter’s major misfire Ghosts of Mars has a semblance of fun. The cast is certainly impressive, at least on paper, including Liev Schreiber, Elias Koteas, and Olivia Williams. Everyone does their best with the material, but only Williams, who plays the film’s most steadily unlikely person, stands out. Perhaps the word ‘Mars’ is actually the curse all of the analysts say it is? Maybe movies about the Red Planet are just destined to fail?
The Last Days on Mars was shot on 35mm and is presented in 2.35:1, 1080p video. Despite the occasional CG effects work, Robinson and cinematographer Robbie Ryan embrace the dynamic, grainy look of film without a whole lot of digital colour-timing tricks. Grain levels are steady with only minor uptakes in the brighter, flatter, more sanitized indoor sets (the white levels here occasionally take on the greens and lavenders from the hues around them as well). Details are very sharp, including both fine close-up textures and complex wide-shots (especially those rocky Jordanian landscapes), all without any notable, compression-created haloes. Colours are a bit muted and the darker shots look a bit muddy, but the highlights have plenty of pop. The biggest issues in terms of compression artefacts are some banding effects in lower light. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack gets off to a strong start as it contrasts the cheery mundanity of the Tin Pan Alley classic ‘Blue Skies are Around the Corner’ with the rumble of a massive sandstorm. In general, though, this is a dialogue and music-driven track that takes its time getting to the more exciting moments. The stereo and surround channels are lively, especially during the initial ‘zombie’ attack, where the creature noises move freely through the speakers while mixing with the station’s beeping/buzzing alarm system. Composer Max Richter’s music underscores the tension well, especially during its louder, more percussive moments. Extras include a making-of featurette (15:20, HD), digital effects comparisons (6:00, HD), behind-the-scenes (4:00, HD), AVX TV: A Look at The Last Days on Mars (3:10, HD), and Magnolia trailers.
After their high school graduation, six teens celebrate with a trip to the remote and mysterious Black Lake. Only Johnny seems to suspect there’s something in the water stalking the revelers as they set out in their small wooden rowboat stocked with beer and fireworks. But why would Johnny let them go swimming if he knew what lurked beneath? A sudden attack from the depths followed by a lethal chain of events leave the teens stranded on the leaking vessel in the middle of the lake with no oars, no way back to shore, held hostage by a menace that circles them persistently. And so the teens turn on each other, and the petty high school grievances they almost left behind prove more deadly than the monster that waits to devour them. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
Writer/director (and sometimes actor) Larry Fassenden has carved himself a niche as a guy that explores traditional horror movie monsters with an existential and psychological slant. No Telling… (1991) was his version of a Frankenstein movie, Habit (1997) was his version of a vampire movie, and Wendigo (2001) was his version of a werewolf movie. The Last Winter (2006, which I admit I haven’t seen) bucked the trend, but Beneath appeared to be a return to form, at least on a surface level. If we are sticking to the Universal Studios template, this latest entry would be his version of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Unfortunately, Beneath doesn’t really fit the Fessenden template – it purposefully dehumanize its monster and its victims follow well-worn genre plot points and character arcs (darker than average paths, I suppose). It is perhaps telling that Fessenden didn’t write Beneath – a first for this vigorously independent filmmaker. The script is attributed to Tony Daniel and Brian D. Smith, writers of a largely derided TV movie called Flu Bird Horror. Their first film appears to have taken its cues from The Birds and Beneath essentially borrows its concept from Lifeboat. Perhaps they are developing their own niche as the guys that schlockify Hitchcock movies. Daniel & Smith fail to produce any compelling characters, opting instead for colossally unlikable jerks. This is sort of the point of the exercise, I suppose, but Fessenden seems lost in the early stages of the melodrama. He’s trapped between boring scenes of boring people arguing about the same things people argue about in all boring horror movies, short bursts of genuinely disturbing and creative violence (most of the deaths are surprisingly intimate for a monster movie), and delightfully cheesy killer fish scare scenes (the fish design is fantastic). Beneath feels like the best possible version of a not very good movie, which may be enough to recommend it to the director’s fanbase.
According to the end credit specs, Beneath was shot using Red Epic digital HD cameras and is presented here in 1080p, 1.78:1 video. Fessenden and cinematographer Gordon Arkenberg aim for a more natural and film-like look, making for a colourful and sharply contrasted image. This is a glossy, super-sharp transfer that is brimming with fine detail and complex texture. The colour palette is lively and lush, amplifying the already rich hues of the great outdoors. Some of the more vivid reds bear minor low level noise effects and a couple of the softer blends bear slight banding effects. Some scenes are also shot using a mini DV camera that one character has wrapped around his wrist. These have a fisheye effect, more saturated colors, and blown-out highlights, but are still generally quite clean. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack does a wonderful job covering the film’s limited budget with busy, multi-channel noise. The natural ambient sounds of the forest/lake environments are expertly blended with the composer Will Bates’ eerie music and more abstract effects to create a fully immersive aural environment. Only a couple of shaky ADR additions sully this otherwise great track. The extras include a commentary with director Fessenden and sound designer Graham Reznick, A Look Behind Beneath: Making the Fish Movie, a raw collection of behind-the-scenes footage set to the film’s soundtrack (1:00:00, HD), outtakes (14:40, HD), footage of the poster being printed (2:10, HD), What the Zeke? webisode (18:30, HD), What's in Black Lake? webisode (starring Fassenden, 11:40, SD in HD), and Fessenden on Jaws (17:10, SD footage in HD), and a trailer.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 11th February 2014
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 English, PCM 2.0 English
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Easter Egg: No
Director: Vincenzo Natali, J.T. Petty, Ruairí Robinson, Larry Fessenden
Cast: Abigail Breslin, Peter Outerbridge, Michelle Nolden, Peter DaCunha, Clancy Brown, Clifton Collins Jr., Andre Royo, Liev Schreiber, Elias Koteas, Romola Garai, Goran Kostić, Johnny Harris, Tom Cullen, Yusra Warsama, Olivia Williams, Daniel Zovatto, Bonnie Dennison, Chris Conroy
Genre: Action, Comedy, Drama, Horror and Sci-Fi
Length: 372 minutes
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