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Indie Horror Bonanza

Would You Rather

(IFC Blu-ray)
David Guy Levy’s Would You Rather is a conceptually clever little geek-show that is perfectly tweaked for a limited, independent feature budget. The film’s basic idea is not an original one, though. Plenty of other horror movies/thrillers have featured characters trapped in solitary locations and pitted against each other for survival and/or some kind of reward. The Saw series added ‘traps’ to the trope, Stuart Hazeldine’s Exam changed the stakes, and, on paper, Daisuke Yamanouchi’s Red Room is basically the same movie as Would You Rather, but I suppose the granddaddy of the subgenre was William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill, where Vincent Price offered five strangers $10,000 to spend the night in a spooky manor. Would You Rather takes additional inspiration from reality TV and recent political strife (the rich villains clearly mock their poorer victims, the main character is getting money to pay for her brother’s impossible medical bills), but, like so many high-concept, limited location horror films, it would’ve worked better as a short or part of an anthology. In an attempt to justify a feature runtime, Steffen Schlachtenhaufen’s screenplay slows much of the film to a crawl, deviating from the intensity and into typical horror movie shenanigans. As a director, Levy has an eye for composition, but his slick images don’t quite cover the film’s obvious budget limitations. More disappointingly, his tonal choices don’t allow for the kind of dark comedy the material really requires. Many of the shocks are well-executed (actual gore levels are low), but this is really ripe material for grotesque satire. I just don’t understand why a movie based around a gruesome twist on a children’s game can’t be a little more fun. Jeffery Combs, however, is categorically fantastic.

Would You Rather is presented in 1080p, 2.35:1 video. There are no specs on IMDB concerning camera type, but there’s no question that it is a digital HD production. The image features no grain, the lighting schemes bloom very softly without damaging the more intricate textures, and the colours are graded to appear de-saturated in a way not achievable without substantial digital tampering. Levy and cinematographer Steve Calitri maintain a consistently soft, shallow-focus, de-saturated look, so this transfer’s value is more in hue purity and lack of blocking or banding effects, rather than crisp edges. There is slight cross-colouration when the palette warms up or involves too many greens, but the base hues and occasional pastel highlights are clean and gradations are smooth. The dynamic range is a bit flat in darker shots. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is a bit underwhelming, though more due to a lack of multi-channel movement or immersive sound mixing. The bulk of the sound is dialogue or music-based with only a handful of stylistic deviations, like poppy gunshots, buzzy electrocutions, and brutal whippings. Generally speaking, the sound is pretty dry with random bits of reverb that muddy the dialogue a little. The intricate and surprisingly delicate music, by Daniel Hunt and Baori Johannsson, is a major standout, especially during the opening credits, where it is very warmly situated in the center of the room with nice, crisp LFE support. The extras include a commentary with Levy and Schlachtenhaufen and trailers.


Indie Horror Bonanza

Kiss of the Damned

(Magnolia Blu-ray)
It’s possible that we have too many vampire movies in the world. I mean, I haven’t done the math, but the sheer quantity seems…excessive. It also seems that this latest wave of vampire movies (if we can actually discern ‘waves’ of a phenomenon that rarely seems to wane) has made its way from the B-movie ghetto to the mainstream and now all the way out to an elite place among indie royalty. Neil Jordon is approaching the myth for the first time since Interview with the Vampire ( Byzantium), Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is on the way, and, last year, Xan (Alexandra) Cassavetes, sister of Nick Cassavetes and daughter of independent film royalty John Cassavetes, made her dramatic feature film debut with Kiss of the Damned – the tale of a struggling screenwriter (Milo Ventimiglia) that meets a sweet-natured vampire (Joséphine de La Baume) and falls in love, only to end up embroiled in her family melodrama.

Before Kiss of the Damned, Cassavetes had only directed a made-for-IFC documentary called Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (it’s very good, by the way) and written the script for Allen Hughes’ segment of New York, I Love You (it’s not very good, by the way). Cassavetes also has a bit of her father in her, based on the sort of neorealist focus on naturalistic dialogue and slice-of-life storytelling style, but is far too decorative and stylistically self-aware to be compared to something like Shadows. Really, Kiss of the Damned is more of an arthouse homage to ‘70s Euro-horror and the kind of thing that would be at home among the Grindhouse family of movies. It’s not a poppy, playful take on genre, but Cassavetes is clearly making similar references, just to more ‘arty’ filmmakers, like Argento and Cronenberg. In this way, I suppose it has more in common with Panos Cosmatos’ Beyond the Black Rainbow and Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio. It functions on a stream of conscious logic similar to Jean Rollin and Jess Franco’s dreamy Sapphic vampire movies – minus the excessive use of slow-motion and fog machines. Even the acting choices remind me of the oddly-dubbed, stiff, and dramatically unhinged performances you’d see in a Lucio Fulci movie. The problem here isn’t so much the languid pacing, which tries one’s patience, but is, I suppose, tonally consistent ( Kiss of the Damned is not a Ti West-like mumblecore monstrosity) – the problem is that Cassavetes has really nothing to bring to the vampire genre beyond her stylistic choices. It’s a handsome but entirely uneventful film that merely spins familiar themes (found in everything from Stoker and Anne Rice, to Blade, and even True Blood) into a mostly dull, pseudo-intellectual exploration of bourgeoisie lifestyles.

Magnolia’s 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer appears true to the 35mm source. Cassavetes and cinematographer Tobias Datum appear to have taken great pains to make their film appear visually unique via chemical, rather than digital processes. The colour quality is relatively consistent, despite the slightly tie-dyed hue design of the moodier shots. Warmer hues, including skin tones, are very vibrant with a hint of bleeding and cooler colours blend nicely with minor uptakes in grain (the nighttime sequences are gelled in definitive blues and greens that create vague banding effects). Any ‘problem’ I may have with this image is likely an effect of purposeful tinkering on the part of the production, including some inconsistent grain levels and weak/inconsistent blacks. Digital artefacts and compression issues are uncommon. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is deceptively powerful. While watching the film, it’s easy to not even notice the effort that his been put into the intricate sound design, but a close listen reveals a very immersive natural environment. Cassavetes’ choppy editing is regularly emphasized by the dynamic changes in aural location. The dialogue track is similarly stylized, as it swirls between narration and on-screen discussion without much warning. Steven Hufsteter’s score follows the sort of schizophrenic tone Cassavetes sets with her images, shifting very suddenly between styles and sound types. Sometimes he embraces abstract noise that could easily be mistaken for sound effects, but also delves into ‘70s rock guitar and LFE-bouncing techno motifs. The extras include a director’s commentary, an interview with actress Joséphine de La Baume (9:50, HD), an interview with actress Roxanne Mesquida (7:10, HD), two AXS TV interviews with Milo Ventimiglia and Mesquida (12:10, HD), and trailers.


Indie Horror Bonanza

Antiviral

(IFC Blu-ray)
When the children of famous filmmakers make their own films, there is always the unfortunate expectation that their work will mirror their parents’ (I mean, just look at the review above). Sofia Coppola escaped this particular trap partially because her father’s filmic output was so eclectic, but Jennifer Lynch’s film debut, Boxing Helena, was crushed under misconceptions set by her father David’s strange and violent movies. She never managed to crawl out from that shadow. Brandon Cronenberg, on the other hand, is taking the opposite approach – he is embracing the baggage that comes with his family name to an extreme. His feature debut, Antiviral, is so similar to a David Cronenberg production that we don’t need the last name to verify inspiration. The only filmmaker I can think of that is more indebted to his famous parent is Mario Van Peebles, who (stick with me here) wrote, produced, directed, and starred in a movie ( Baadasssss) that dramatized the production of a movie his father Melvin wrote, produced, directed, and starred in ( Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss). But I digress. Antiviral takes place in a near future utterly ruled by celebrity worship where people eat protein steaks made from the cloned cells of their favourite movie stars and, at their most desperate, can even infect themselves with VIP diseases. Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), specializes in selling celebrity diseases and runs into trouble when he smuggles a particularly sought-after virus within his own body.

It’s arguable that Cronenberg’s homage to his father hinders Antiviral and that embracing the comparisons keeps the film at an arm’s length from being authentically ‘good.’ He populates his strange universe with tonally stoic characters that speak in deceptive monotone. Every conversation is dripping with sexual subtext and under-veiled social commentary. The science of science fiction is described in great detail to a point that it’s more believable than not. The images are hyper-sterilized representations of faux-perfection that leaves the audience cold and primed for the shock of grotesque body-horror. Even the lead seems to be the surrogate son of Seth Brundle and Eliot Mantle – he is infected by his own science and is left physically and spiritually broken by his obsessions. He also interacts with a television image of his ‘love interest,’ like Max Renn in Videodrome, and ends the film as a walking experiment for the opposition. Antiviral is overlong and light on actual plot (it could be shorn of 20 minutes without really losing anything), but it’s also a sometimes powerful glimpse into a bleak and surprisingly unique sci-fi world. Cronenberg successfully evokes the futurist imagery of ‘70s sci-fi movies, like THX-1138 and Logan’s Run, and anchors them in a harsh enough reality to create a true sense of paranoid hypochondria. In the end, this is a more successful use of David Cronenberg’s classic body-horror aesthetic than the elder director has managed since Naked Lunch.

Cronenberg and cinematographer Karim Hussain (who is something of a Canadian underground horror legend himself) shot Antiviral using Arri Alexa digital HD cameras. This 1080p, 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer is a good representation of the format’s abilities with stark and sanitized imagery. The palette is bleached out by an overarching, arrant white levels. There is colour, both cool and warm, but the basis of every hue is blown out due to bright whites and crushed blacks. For the most part, the colours that give the image its hue texture are extremely delicate (with the exception of some of the natural greens of the ‘outside world’ and, of course, the blood reds), so much that they’d likely turn to mush on a standard definition release. Many of the fine details are flattened, except, of course, the many extreme, scientific close-ups. The close-ups are quite sharp, while the softer edges that surround background shapes (creating the depth of field) are flecked with only minor digital artefacts. Some of the subtler gradient blends have more obvious issues with banding and cross-colouration effects. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is not a typical mix, but a very aggressive one, thanks to high dynamic ranges and surrealistic effects work. E.C. Woodley’s ambient score is given a wide spread over the stereo and surround channels, complete with swirling directional movement and throbbing LFE involvement. The less stylized sounds of on-screen interaction, both dialogue and incidental effects, are mostly centered. These aural elements don’t move around a lot, but are plenty clear and consistent. Extras include a commentary track featuring Cronenberg and Hussain, Anatomy of a Virus behind-the-scenes EPK (29:40, HD), deleted scenes with optional commentary (5:10, HD), a making-of featurette (12:50, HD), and trailers.


Indie Horror Bonanza

Aftershock

(Anchor Bay/Weinstein Company Blu-ray)
There was a moment there that I thought Eli Roth might be a leader in the future of film horror, due to his growth as a filmmaker from Cabin Fever to Hostel Part II (one of the best horror films of the last decade) was comparable to Peter Jackson’s, from Bad Taste to Braindead. Unfortunately, before he could make his way to his Heavenly Creatures ‘prestige flick,’ Roth stopped directing in favour of producing mediocre-to-decent, medium-budget projects ( The Last Exorcism, The Man with the Iron Fists) and playing bit parts in Quentin Tarantino and Alexandre Aja movies. Hopefully, his long overdue ode du Deodato, The Green Inferno, lives up to the expectations set eight years ago. While we wait, we have Aftershock, a twist on the disaster thriller Roth developed with co-writer/director Nicolás López (with additional writing from Guillermo Amoedo).

López is, apparently, best known for his Chilean-made comedies, including Promedio Rojo and the Que Pena… series – Que Pena Tu Vida ( Fuck My Life), Que Pena Tu Boda ( Fuck My Wedding), Que Pena Tu Familia ( Fuck My Family). It appears that Aftershock is his first foray into horror – and Aftershock is certainly a horror movie. López’ lack of international stardom has ensured that Roth’s name is most commonly associated with the film in advertising, but Roth’s influence looms largely enough that the attention is warranted. Aftershock is definitely a Hostel-esque take on the disaster picture. The pre-disaster stuff, featuring Roth and his wealthy Chilean friends wandering from party to party, is awkward and mostly unfunny, though, from what I understand, well within López’ usual wheelhouse. The set-up is disappointingly formulaic, which is especially unfortunate, given Hostel II’s beautiful subversion of formula. I suppose Aftershock subverts some disaster movie tropes (it’s less about the damage caused by the earthquake than it is about the damage caused by humans following the earthquake), but it follows the Eli Roth formula so closely that I found myself watching the supporting cast for bloodhound tattoos. The first act limps along while setting up characters that aren’t really complex enough to require a solid thirty-plus minutes of exposition. Once the earthquake has commenced, López gives us a taste of his horror capabilities while dolling out some amusingly gory shocks. His dependence on hand-held cameras to convey chaos is a little maddening (even numbing), but the brutality of the situation is effectively realized. I also sort of appreciate the huge tonal shift that occurs once the earthquake shatters societal norms, even if López and Roth don’t do anything to earn the melancholic asides while establishing their mostly archetypal slasher movie cast.

Again, I can’t find any technical specs concerning the kind of cameras used to shot this film, but this 1.85:1, 1080p transfer looks very digital HD to me. Detail levels are complex and deep-set, especially the natural textures of the Chilean landscape and architecture. Contrast levels are dynamic, but not set particularly high, allowing for nice, smooth gradations between the darkest and lightest hues. The colours are divided between a slightly soft, but mostly natural outdoor look, a punchy indoor party palette that is defined by neon blues, greens, and reds, and a cool, surreal, dark look. Some of the darker sequences feature a bit of digital noise, but, on average, the colour separation is nice and tight. López gets away with a minimal budget, thanks largely in part to the film’s aggressive sound design. This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is literally rumbling with low frequency emissions from the onset of the opening credits, just to let the audience know what they’re in for. The ‘disaster’ sounds begin with a creaky gondola ride that acts as a taste of the upcoming carnage. Then the earthquake starts and stuff starts crashing, cracking, and screaming throughout the channels. Other highlights include loud club scenes, some mostly effective ambient crowd noise (there are some issues with sound layering on the dance floor, where the squeaky steps of dancing feet can be heard over the discussion and music). Manuel Riviero’s score is a bit overwhelming and over-serious, but sounds big and rich on this soundtrack. The extras include an ‘international’ commentary track with López (from Santiago) and Roth (from LA), The Making of Aftershock behind-the-scenes featurette (9:30, HD), Shaking Up the Casting Process (2:10, HD), and trailers for other Dimension/Anchor Bay releases.


Indie Horror Bonanza

Hatchet III

(Dark Sky Films Blu-ray)
Adam Green’s original post-modern slasher film, Hatchet, arrived in 2006 with huge expectations. The producers marketed it as a return to ‘70s and ‘80s American-flavoured horror and fandom bristled with anticipation. The final result was…fine. Okay. Half-decent. Which is to say, it was a disappointment. Green’s film was, indeed, a throwback to the point that it became roughly interchangeable with hundreds of other gory, body-count movies, minus some state-of-the-art effects and a number of horror celebrity cameos. Then, Scott Glosserman’s Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon was released the same year (eventually even backed by the same studio, Anchor Bay, for a small theatrical release) and stole Green’s thunder by being an equally star-studded throwback that also managed to be clever, original, and a cross-over critical success. But Hatchet was still a modestly successful and had plenty of fans, so it garnered two sequels via Dark Sky Films. Green himself wrote and directed the second film, which was not very well received (I’ve never seen it), then passed off the directing duties on the third film to star Steadicam operator BJ McDonnell.

Hatchet III starts right off where I presume Hatchet II left off with Marybeth Dunston (Danielle Harris) killing the hell out of the supernatural serial killer Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder). After thoroughly disposing of the corpse, a frazzled Marybeth turns herself in to Sheriff Fowler (Zach Galligan), who sends his officers to the location of the previous film’s massacre to be slaughtered. Meanwhile, the sheriff’s ex-wife, Amanda (Caroline Williams), hatches a plan to do away with Crowley for good. Green’s script scores points early for building on the original film’s mythology and avoiding too many slasher character clichés. He then loses just as many points for recycling the structure of every other ‘up-the-ante’ horror sequel. The gore gags and massive body count dictate the story’s momentum, or lack of momentum, making for an elongated climax without any real tonal texture. McDonnell’s skills as a cameraman are apparent in the graceful compositions and smooth Steadicam movements, but this doesn’t save him from Green’s repetitive and saggy screenplay. As a director, he displays a grasp of the rhythm of scare scenes, but so much of the movie is relentlessly action-oriented that his best efforts just turn to desensitizing mush. Too much of a good thing, I guess. The cast, which is made up of Rob Zombie’s usual cadre of B-horror mainstays, does a great job maintaining the tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top tone and selling some atrocious ‘comedic’ dialogue. Derek Mears (who, like Kane Hodder, also played Jason Voorhees) ‘wins’ the film as a gruff SWAT leader. I suppose it’s just fun to see him in a speaking role. Sid Haig’s cameo is another pleasant surprise.

Hatchet III was originally conceived by Green as a 3D movie, but I assume the fact that these movies make most of their money on the home video market prevailed and production costs were kept down with 2D photography instead. Once again, I can’t find format specs, but, based on the softer black levels and fine grain, I’m going to guess that McDonnell and cinematographer Will Barratt shot on 35mm film. The film look offers plenty of grit to an already raw 2.35:1, 1080p image that includes some really harsh contrast. The grain and occasionally soft focus practices keep the details from appearing too sharp at any given moment, but the darker edges are plenty crisp and textures are complex enough to give an SD transfer some major trouble. The colours are pretty vivid with a general greenish/yellowish tint throughout. This is most apparent during the brighter sequences. The bluer night-time scenes are darker, obviously, though not so dark that the more subtle details are muddied-over. The black levels are weak, but there are only a few moments where they’re really a problem. Digital artefacts are limited to a tiny bit of low-level blocking during these darkest scenes. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is nice and aggressive. The obvious standouts are murder sequences and their multi-channel chunky, slashy, splattery glory, but there’s also quite a bit of subtle ambience that settles throughout the channels whenever characters are in the swamp environment. Other highlights include a Predator-inspired sequence of SWAT members unloading their weapons and Victor Crowley’s angry bull cry. Scott Glasgow’s score is typical horror movie stuff, but gets plenty to do throughout the production, filling the stereo and surround channels during the more dialogue-heavy scenes. The extras include a commentary with McDonnell, Green, Barratt, and effects artist Robert Pendergraft, a second commentary with Green, McDonnell, and Hodder, a behind-the-scenes featurette (9:10, HD), Raising Kane (5:00, HD), Swamp Fun (8:50, HD), trailers, and trailers for other Dark Sky releases.


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