Indie Horror Bonanza III (US - BD RA)
Gabe checks out Almost Human, Rigor Mortis, and Wolf Creek 2...
Two years ago, Mark Fisher (Josh Ethier) disappeared from his home in rural Maine in a brilliant flash of otherworldly blue light. His friend, Seth Hampton (Graham Skipper), was the last to see him alive. Now, Seth is having disturbing premonitions that Mark has returned as something other than human. When grisly, violent murders start taking place in the community, Seth and his girlfriend, Jen Craven (Vanessa Leigh), discover that Mark is indeed back, and that there is something terribly evil inside of him. (From IFC Midnight’s official synopsis)
Not to be confused with Umberto Lenzi’s Italian-made cop thriller or Fox’s recently canceled sci-fi television series, Joe Begos’ Almost Human is a pretty typical, do-it-yourself horror movie. There’s not much that sets it apart from the dozens, maybe hundreds of similar fan-made features, except for the fact that it actually got a decent release by the folks at IFC Midnight. The story follows shares traits with the Invasion of the Body Snatchers tradition and superficial similarities with Prince of Darkness, but Almost Human’s low-budget, rural setting, and small, amateur cast remind me more of a pair of trashy, UK-made sci-fi-horror flicks – Harry Bromley Davenport’s Xtro and Norman J. Warren’s Prey – and Don Dohler’s ridiculously schlocky sci-fi/horror hybrids ( The Alien Factory and Nightbeast in particular). I don’t want to imply that Almost Human is a similarly inept movie on a technical level; just that these films share a spirit of genre affection and initiative. Ultimately, Begos has made a modern-looking film and a relatively slick one, despite an over-use of shaky-cam, but he does waste a lot of his energy paying homage to his predecessors (the pre-title sequence is inspired by Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the titles steal their font and editing style from Prince of Darkness, the story takes place in the 1980s, and in a fictional town from Stephen King’s books, et cetera) and not enough time making his own movie. More problematic is the languid pacing, which puts too much emphasis on characters that aren’t strong enough to carry a feature length movie (it’s already pretty short at 80 minutes). Like so many similar releases, it probably would’ve worked better as part of an anthology. Still, it’s a pretty strong DIY debut with a handful of really fun practical effects sequences.
Almost Human is presented in 2.40:1, 1080p video and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. The film was shot using RED MYSTERIUM-X digital HD cameras, but Begos embraces its impurities and grain to create a very film-like look. This relatively rough imagery loosens up some of the details without completely crushing them out. Colours are purposefully desaturated throughout the film and lighting schemes reflect an overcast landscape. The brighter interiors feature some warmer hues (skin tones, in particular), while the darker, grimmer exteriors are made up mostly of grey and blue backdrops to emphasis the poppy, blood-red highlights. The sound design is quite impressive and successfully covers many of the budget limitations with aggressive, punchy, and directionally-enhanced effects work. These include whooshing off-camera spacecraft sounds and various alien noises of both mechanical and organic origin. The incidental effects work and dialogue are slightly less successful in terms of their natural quality, because the directional elements are a bit overdone, but still crystal clear. Composer Andy Garfield’s heavily percussive score features convincing faux-symphonic themes and punchy, ‘80s-tastic electronic punctuations. Extras include an extensive making-of featurette (45:10, HD), behind-the-scenes footage (5:10, HD), on-set footage with Graham Skipper (2:10, HD), Toxin short film (4:10, HD), trailers, ‘vintage’ TV spot, and a photo gallery.
A washed-up actor, desperate and suicidal, moves into a haunted apartment building where supernatural creatures, ghost hunters, Taoist exorcists, and the souls of the undead are among his neighbors. (From WellGo USA’s original synopsis)
It turns out that Hollywood doesn’t hold a monopoly on post-modern, referential horror movies. Like the Scream movies of the ‘90s and the straighter-faced, ‘70s-inspired American horror of the post-9/11 period, director Juno Mak’s Rigor Mortis is a big, sloppy, wet kiss to a bygone era of filmmaking. Rigor Mortis makes generalized references to the action-horror-comedies made in Hong Kong throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s – a subgenre usually dubbed Jiangshi films after the hopping vampires that usually appear in them) – including the hiring of the period’s finest actors, including Mr. Vampire series alumni Anthony Chan, Chin Siu-ho, Richard Ng, and Billy Lauand, Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind’s Chung Fat, and Seventh Curse star Kara Hui Ying-hung. As a long-time, abiding fan of the films Mak is paying tribute to, I was excited and apprehensive in equal measure. Many similar movies are too wrapped up in the preciousness of adulation to stand on their own. Contrary to the assumption, Rigor Mortis is more disappointing for avoiding too many obvious comparisons. It is tonally sullen, slow-moving, and lacks the quirky comedy that made its predecessors so memorable. It’s less a celebration of the Jiangshi tradition and more of a somber (often dark and surprisingly violent) meditation on the passing of these kinds of films.
Casting aside my disappointment in the film’s tone and thematic content, however, I can appreciate its unique and modern visual practices. In fact, Rigor Mortis is among the more pure visual achievements I’ve seen in some time. Its meditative images remind me more of Kubrick, Argento, or even Nicolas Winding Refn than Ricky Lau, Sammo Hung, or Tsui Hark. The fractured narrative serves this spooky stillness from scene to scene, making Rigor Mortis something closer to a series of connected and extended music videos than a proper movie. This makes sense when one considers first-time director Mak’s career as a Chinese pop singer/producer. This also means it overstays its welcome, but not enough to suggest avoiding it. In the context of a straight-laced, slow-burning supernatural horror movie, the few action scenes feel out of place, but are well-executed (I love the creepy variation on the relatively unimposing hopping vampire) and entertaining references to older Jiangshi films (Mak’s other satisfying references usually revolve around the fetishistic details of Taoist rituals).
Rigor Mortis was shot using Red Epic digital HD cameras and is presented here in 2.40:1, 1080p HD video. Mak and cinematographer Man-Ching Ng have fully embraced the format’s smooth gradations and tight elemental separation to create the film’s strange visuals. The general softness of the imagery (which is magnified by very shallow focus) depletes crisp textures, but doesn’t interfere with complex patterns. White levels are sort of dull and further smooth-out the overall depth, but black levels are pure and dark. The base colour palette is desaturated to the point that it is almost purely black at white at some points (though there is a slight lavender quality throughout). Skin tones and costume flourishes are subtle and uncanny in their tonal consistency. This understated canvas is used to amplify the vibrancy of bloody red highlight hues and is occasionally juxtaposed with incredibly vivid, surrealistic shots. The digital processing leads to some blooby shapes and minor banding effects, but I’m pretty sure these are part of the material and not problems with disc compression. WellGo USA has included DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 versions of the original Cantonese and English dubs. This review pertains to the 5.1 Cantonese track, which is hyperactive with an abstract and surreal sound design. Silence plays an integral role in setting tone as well, but we are rarely too far from lively directional influences. The dialogue tracks are more natural than a number of other recent Chinese films. Nath Connelly’s score is mostly atonal, mournful, and/or atmospheric, but includes some sly melodic cues from the films Mak is paying homage to – specifically a slowed-down version of the children’s chorus that accompanies Jade the Ghost in Mr. Vampire. Extras include only a trailer and trailers for other WellGo USA releases.
Wolf Creek 2
Lured by the promise of an Australian holiday, exchange student Paul visits the notorious Wolf Creek Crater. His dream Outback adventure soon becomes a horrific reality when he encounters the site’s most infamous local, Mick Taylor (John Jarratt). When Paul attempts to flee, Mick pursues him across a hostile wasteland and eventually drags him back to his underground lair. After seeing the true magnitude of Mick's monstrosity, Paul's only hope of surviving, where no one has before, will be to use every ounce of cunning to outwit the man behind the monster. (From Image Entertainment’s original synopsis)
Greg McLean’s original Wolf Creek was one of the better films of the raw,‘70s style revival that took the horror scene by storm in the previous decade. It succeeded in slowly burning its way from pleasant character beats to brutal horror, eloquently employed the ‘based on a true story’ mythos, introduced John Jarratt to international audiences, and helped drum up interest in classic Australian exploitation (eventually leading to Jarratt’s appearance in Tarantino’s Django Unchained). Its weaknesses were its familiarity (like most of the films of its era, it owned an almost excessive debt to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and its abrupt ending, which implied a sequel would be coming soon. Yet, the sequel never came. McLean spent his goodwill making a killer crocodile movie called Rogue that failed to inspire the same excitement Wolf Creek did. Finally, almost ten years after the original hints of the the outback’s most frightening serial killer’s future adventures, fans have Wolf Creek 2. To say the iron has cooled is an understatement.
The new film opens strong with two crooked, asshole cops pulling Mick over to give him an unearned speeding ticket. The audience is, for the first time, allowed to root for this particular villain as he wreaks gory revenge on cruel authority figures. From here, however, it’s more or less business as usual. McLean plays a bit with the audience’s assumptions (specifically the way he teases us with familiar situations that have different results), but doesn’t subvert expectations or explore ‘mythology’ like Eli Roth did with Hostel Part II (though parts of the last act appear to have been inspired by Roth’s sequel). Instead, we are treated to a series of vignettes with little connection outside of Jarratt’s character. Building the sequel around the villain’s point of view is predictable and a mistake, because, like most slasher movie killers, Mick works best in small bursts. The creepy charm of the nice guy Aussie stereotype is dropped too quickly, turning Mick into more of a flippant Freddy Kruger-like character (the protagonists are given basically zero introduction this time). Jarratt does well, though – the overexposure isn’t his fault and he really helps carry the super-tense mano-a-mano climax. Technically speaking, McLean’s skills as a visual storyteller are at a peak, especially when he is establishing the bleak isolation of the Outback environment. He also does countryman George Miller proud with some intense and inventive car chases. The scares are a bit tepid, but the gore is spectacularly graphic – more so than the original film, which left quite a bit to our imaginations. In the end, Wolf Creek 2 merely meets the lowest expectations, while also reminding us that McLean is still better at what he does than most of his contemporaries.
McLean was an early adapter of the digital HD format and shot the original Wolf Creek on Sony HDCAMs. A near-decade later and he hasn’t given up on the format. Wolf Creek 2 was shot with Arri Alexa cameras (a 4k upgrade over the 1080i Sony cameras) and is presented in 1080p, 2.35:1 HD video on this Blu-ray disc. He and cinematographer Toby Oliver embrace the format’s clarity and super-sharp capabilities with expansive, highly-detailed images of the Outback and extensively textured close-ups. There are basically zero compression artefacts and even the under-lit, mostly black night sequences are clear of more than the lightest touch of digital grain. The palette is pretty organic and gradations are relatively natural, unlike a lot of other films shot digitally, which opt for super-soft blends (there are occasional ghosting effects during some of the more actiony shots). The soundtrack is aggressive when necessary, like when cars are crashing and fires are raging, but it’s even better when the sound designers are fiddling with dynamic levels – the hiss and delayed splat of a far-off, high-calibre gunshot, the intimidating clang of Mick’s truck approaching from off-screen, or the crisp rumble of distant thunder. Dialogue is consistent and incidental noises are subtly integrated, aside from any stabs or slices, which are quite loud and juicy for maximum grossness. Composer Johnny Klimek’s dramatic score does its job well as it slides under the spooky moments and blasts over the chase scenes. Other music, like Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to Be Wild’ and The Tokens’ ‘In the Jungle,’ is spread widely over the speakers, including a relatively strong rear channel presence. Extras include deleted/extended scenes (24:00, HD – these flesh out the victims quite a bit, especially the German backpackers) and Creating a Monster: The Making of Wolf Creek 2 (52:10, HD).
* 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
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 17th June 2014
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1/2.0 Cantonese (Rigor Mortis),
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Making-of Featurettes, Behind-the-Scenes, 'Toxin' Short Film, Creating a Monster: The Making of Wolf Creek 2, Trailers, DVD Copy (Wolf Creek 2)
Easter Egg: No
Director: Joe Begos, Juno Mak, Greg McLean
Cast: Graham Skipper, Josh Ethier, Vanessa Leigh, Chin Siu-ho, Anthony Chan, Kara Hui, Lo Hoi-pang, John Jarratt, Ryan Corr, Phillipe Klaus, Shannon Ashlyn
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Horror, Sci-Fi and Thriller
Length: 0 minutes
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