[25 January 2011]
Since 2006, After Dark Horrorfest has provided a showcase for an impressive collection of low-budget horror films. This includes theatrical releases for movies that otherwise would likely have gone straight to video and languished in obscurity from all but the most dedicated genre fanatics, and because if the notoriety of the brand, the 8 Films to Die For DVD series have sold exponentially more units than most of these movies would have on their own. Now After Dark is releasing the first four volumes in a series of their films as Double Features to Die For on Blu-ray. These films span the spectrum of the horror genre, from slasher to supernatural to zombies, and more. Some are cheap schlock, others play for laughs, and still more simply want to be gory.
The Gravedancers / Wicked Little Things
While it doesn’t even think about breaking any new ground, Mike Mendez’s Poltergeist influenced ghost story, The Gravedancers is a decent take on the genre, despite some wooden acting, and more than a few instances of silly make up effects.
Three estranged friends reunite for a funeral, and decide to keep the night going with some serious drinking and dancing at their dead friend’s grave. You can imagine that isn’t going to end well for anybody. Soon after the funeral strange things start happening to Harris (Dominic Purcell). The phone rings and no one is there, the cat is inexplicably scared, lights flash, there’s wind inside, disembodied voices, unexplained music, a creepy girl in the corner, you know, ghost stuff.
The Gravedancers could have been better—there are some missed opportunities to explore the Night Train vs. Champagne class conflicts between the friends, and the ghost hunters the friends turn to for help are obnoxious—but for what it is, a low-budget horror flick that owes a large debt to The Ring, it’s not bad.
On the list of places you don’t want to live in a horror movie, number one is on an ancient Indian burial ground, and a close second is a house, deep in the woods, near an abandoned mine where a bunch of children were exploited, then buried a live by an unscrupulous businessman. However, the latter is exactly where the family in Wicked Little Things does move.
In another long-standing horror tradition, after a traumatic event, a family will relocate so they can start over, but, of course, they move to the exact wrong place at the exact wrong time. Karen (Lori Huering), and her daughters Sarah (Scout Taylor-Compton) and Emma (Chloe Moertz), move to a spooky old house, deep in the Pennsylvania mountains to cope with the death of their husband/father. The setting comes complete with a creepy store clerk full of ominous legends about their new neighborhood, and a colorful local weirdo who roams the woods with jars full of his own blood. Oh, and of course there are the armies of undead miner children who also stalk the woods, eating whoever they come across. It’s not clear exactly what they are, they’re referred to both as ghosts and as zombies, but they’re bad news.
For all of the standard spooky movie clichés, in the end Wicked Little Things is an effective horror yarn. Director J.S. Cardone keeps things dark and suspenseful, makes use of the isolated woodland setting, and sprinkles the film with enough unique images, like a bunch of dead bunnies hanging from trees, to keep things interesting to watch.
The Blu-ray comes stacked with bonus features for both films. Each one gets a commentary track as well as behind the scenes extras.
Borderland / Crazy Eights
Initially, due to the graphic nature of the first scene, you think Borderland is going to another mediocre torture porn. While Zev Berman’s film does skew that way at times, if you can stomach hacked off limbs, eyeballs in jars, and maggots for really only two scenes, what you find is a tense kidnapping story inspired by a slew of real life cult killings.
After graduation, three friends cross the border into Mexico to get their virgin, son-of-a-preacher bro laid with a hooker. (You’ll notice a developing trend of questionable decision-making in these films.) A night of shrooming at a Mexican theme park leads to Phil’s (Rider Strong) abduction by a cult of Santeria practicing drug dealers, a group that includes Sean Astin playing way against type, leaving Ed (Brian Presely) and Henry (Jake Muxworthy) to track him down.
While not for the faint of heart, Borderland has something many low-budget, gore-soaked horror films don’t have, actual characters who are well-rounded, have real personalities, motivations, and emotional arcs. Add that to a taut story and ample atmosphere, and you wind up with a surprisingly watchable movie.
Crazy Eights, the second part of this double feature, is not watchable at all. Six childhood friends with a dark secret lurking in their collective past, start having simultaneous nightmares that lead them to the abandoned mental hospital they grew up in.
Despite having the biggest name cast out of all of these movies, including Dina Meyer, Traci Lords, Frank Whaley, George Newbern, and Garbrielle Anwar, everything about Crazy Eights feels lazy. There are huge gaps in continuity and editing throughout the film, and only the flimsiest motivations and causal connections. At every turn you can’t help but think, why the hell did they do that? Even the opening credits are half-assed. With no real plot, and no real characters, Crazy Eights is a weak, toothless attempt at a horror film.
Borderland has a nice collection of extras, including a commentary track with cast and crew, Zev Berman’s video diary, and a 30-minute documentary exploring the source material, a series of cult murders in Matamoros, Mexico. All Crazy Eight includes are some webisodes of the “Miss Horrorfest Contest”, a sort of goth/horror beauty pageant, which isn’t even as interesting as that sounds.
The Broken / The Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations
The Broken wants to be a psychological horror film, it practically screams it. The film is full of shrieking string music, long, slow zooms into close ups, things in mirrors not moving like they’re supposed to, and elongated, empty hospital hallways that are always heavily shadowed and cast in cold blue hues.
Gina McVey (Lena Heady) is a successful radiologist with a loving family and things seemingly all figured out. Everything changes, however, when she sees a woman who looks just like her drive by on the street, but before she can track down her doppelganger, she gets into a car accident, suffering massive head trauma. When Gina awakes she can’t remember the accident, her doting boyfriend is cold and distant, and she is haunted by nightmares.
All the trappings in the world can’t save The Broken from being a protracted, gradual build, that never gets anywhere besides an outrageously B.S. ending. Think the ending in High Tension, where it ruins the entire movie that came before it, only the movie that precedes the end of The Broken isn’t anywhere near as good as the one in High Tension, it’s boring and sluggish. The twist is one of those that as soon as you see it you can immediately point out three or four places where the film directly contradicts it’s own conclusion.
So they made a third Butterfly Effect movie, The Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations, which seems wholly unnecessary. At least this one doesn’t have Ashton Kutcher in it, though that may be the only thing the film has going for it. The title is also a bit puzzling, since the film has no real revelations, nor does it have anything to do with the Book of Revelations, which would seem to be the most prominent references for a film subtitled Revelations.
Chris Carmack, who is most known for uttering that iconic line from The O.C., “welcome to the O.C., bitch,” plays Sam, a guy who can “jump” through time. He uses his abilities to go back and witness crimes, and then poses as a police psychic. The basic set up is a great deal like USA Network’s Psych. One of the main rules is that you never go back to alter your own past, a rule that Sam breaks against the advice of his bearded, weed smoking time-mentor. While trying to save his first love from being murdered, he changes one little thing, only to indelibly alter the present. He jumps again, changes one small thing, and alters the present again. And so on. You get the idea, things spiral downwards at a breakneck pace with each successive jump. All of Sam’s attempts to fix the past lead to an increasingly desolate present.
Thirteen-minutes into Revelations you have a pretty good idea of how it will end. The story is convoluted, messy, and has little internal logic. Sam remembers his pre-jump world, and occasionally, when it suits the plot, so do other people, but he has to relearn his entire life story after each leap. There’s no explanation as to how or why Sam can time travel. In reality, it’s best not to think about The Butterfly Effect 3 too hard, that would be a mistake.
The Blu-ray The Broken/The Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations is the weakest of the bunch. The only bonus features for either film are a couple more webisodes of the “Miss Horrorfest” contest, which, as already indicated, aren’t worth your time unless you’re really hard up to see some goth girls in bikinis covered in fake blood.
The Graves / ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction
The Graves is an attempted throwback to films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Two goth-leaning, comic book loving, teenage sisters in low-cut tank tops, Megan and Abby Graves (get it, the name of the movie is The Graves) find themselves in a small town full of toothless yokels, and are lured to a ghost town that isn’t really a ghost town because it’s infested with people trying to kill them. Most of the film’s energy is focused on finding reasons for the girls to run away from something.
While The Graves is mildly amusing for 15- or 20-minutes, after that it gets tedious and bland. It’s has a similar feel to Rob Zombie’s first two movies, in that you can tell that the people behind it have an obvious love for horror films, but that they don’t really have sense of how to actually construct a narrative. The Graves features a who’s who of low-budget horror movie actors—including Tony Todd, Amanda Wyss, Bill Mosley, and more—but is more a collection of moments inspired by other genre films rather than a coherent story on it’s own. There is a crazy preacher, an unexplained, soul-sucking entity, an abandoned mine, and a crazy, murderous blacksmith.
I wish ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction was a better movie, I really do. First, it was produced in Seattle, my town, and I like it when the locals do something good. Secondly, a friend of mine wrote the script, at least in part. (He is a good writer, I swear, it just isn’t on display here) And thirdly, I’m in it. I got to be an extra one night when the production crew picked up some additional shots they missed during principle photography. At 48:30 there is a shadowy figure shuffling around at the tree line. (I was this close—imagine me holding my fingers half an inch apart—to being a zombie that gets machete’d in the crotch and spews blood from a crotch-mounted blood cannon, but we ran out of darkness.) In reality all you can see is the picture on the front of my hoodie, but it is enough to identify me if you know what to look for.
For some reason an infamous Muslim terrorist decides to unleash a plague of zombies upon the tiny, idyllic, and most importantly, isolated, island town of Port Gamble (which isn’t actualy an island). What follows is a disjointed attempt at a zombie comedy that also tries to make some point about racism and intolerance. Only the jokes aren’t funny, the characters are all hackneyed caricatures that read like half-assed, small-town stereotypes written by people who’ve only ever seen a small town on TV. Even beyond that, the plot is a mess. Somehow the national news media knows of this zombie invasion of a small town before any of the residents have actually seen a zombie.
It’s a noble, and time-tested approach to use a zombie film to expose the hidden ugliness of humanity, but the approach ZMD takes is too blatant and simplistic, providing nothing more in depth than cartoons and one liners. However, the gore is really good. In fact, it is probably the best gore out of any of the After Dark films in this collection. If the filmmakers had made a zombie movie first, and worried about being funny and making a point second, ZMD could have been a decent genre offering.
Oddly enough, ZMD was produced by John Sinno, who was nominated for an Academy Award for the documentary Iraq in Fragments.
Similarly to the most of the other volumes in this collection, this disc comes with an extensive collection of bonus material. Use you’re imagination and you can guess what they are, mostly behind the scenes featurettes, and commentary tracks, but the extras are a nice touch.
All of the films in the After Dark Horrorfest Double Features to Die For series fit snuggly into a subgenre of horror. There is nothing earth shattering here, but there are some solid entries into the cannon. The films run the gamut from pretty good to god-awful crap, with a few welcome surprises that remind you why you love independent horror to begin with. If you’re a hardcore horror fan, you can probably find something to appreciate in any of these movies, but casual fans should be more selective when picking up these Blu-ray offerings.