From terror to camp, it’s all on DVD
Originally Published in The Star Newspapers
October 27, 2005
Venture across the bridge and into the rural fields of The Locals, and your soul may be forfeit if you don’t escape by morning.
Venture across the bridge to break into a house in the country and accidentally speak the words from the Book of the Dead, and demons (The Evil Dead 2) or vampires (Shower of Blood) may come to swipe your girlfriend away.
Venture into the country with a friend or three and lose your way, and you could find yourself under the psychotic attack of a serial killer (High Tension) or of an entire town of zombies (Dead & Breakfast).
Notice a theme or two here?
Horror movies, at their core, deal largely with our fear of the unknown, and quite often retribution for transgressions of the flesh. Some of the creepiest take place out in the country, where the dark is all around. We watch them because we love the adrenalin that the “scares” release, and also to feel vindicated when the bad guys get their just rewards. Over the past few years, generations of horror movies have made their way to DVD, and this article’s aim is to cover some of the most recent releases, both new non-theatrical straight-to-DVD films, and reissues of old and sometimes long-forgotten titles.
Because they had a theatrical release in the last year or so, I won’t spend ink on movies like Cursed (2 stars) an average werewolf move with Christina Ricci (pick up Ginger Snaps instead) or Boogeyman (2.5 stars — great until the botched ending) or Shaun of the Dead (4 stars) one of the few horror movies ever that manages to combine both truly laugh-out-loud humor with jump off your chair scares.
Nor will I spend time on Saw (4 stars) one of the best dark thrillers of the past five years, except to note that there’s a new uncut edition out to pave the way for the upcoming sequel Saw II.
Instead, I’m going to cover newer films that never got theater distribution, and older titles that have just seen reissue on DVD in the past year or so.
New Films That Went Straight-to-DVD:
Every year there are scores of movies that never get picked up for release in the movie theater near you…and it’s not because they’re bad films. In fact The Locals, Dead Birds and Dead & Breakfast are better than almost any of the horror movies that did get sent to the big screen this year.
The Locals, 2005
This New Zealand film was released Down Under two years ago, but just hit these shores this year. At its core is the classic horror trope of two friends taking the wrong “shortcut” on a road trip to the beach, and finding themselves involved in a series of increasingly strange occurences.
Lured by two girls to follow them to a house party, they’re involved in an accident that strands their car off the road. But when they go to find help, they witness a farmer slitting his wife’s throat. The farmer soon is after them with a posse, and the two friends get separated. Before the night is over, they’ll meet ghosts, get caught up in a manic car chase down dark gravel roads, be forced to dig up graves at gunpoint, and more.
This is a movie with great atmosphere, twists, and acting that makes you wonder why Hollywood can’t make its bigger budget films as good. Its New Zealand location, which looks eerily desolate and remote is as much a character of the film as the actors.
Dead Birds, 2005
It’s a crime that this wonderfully atmospheric, creepy film went straight to DVD. While it’s a haunted house movie at its core, the setup is fairly unusual for a modern horror romp. Set in the Civil War era, it opens with a bank robbery and follows the criminals as they take refuge in an abandoned Southern mansion where they’re trapped by a thunder storm and the infection of the gunshot wound one of the group sustained in the robbery.
Jealousy, drinking and gambling soon splinter the group’s trust of each other, while as the night goes on, they’re taunted by a phantom child in a well, bloody footsteps on the floor, mangled apparitions, toothy half-formed monsters and more as the movie descends into what feels like a delusional nightmare.
There’s a story of the house’s past that soon unfolds, and it’s a story whose evil will soon overtake the present.
Dead and Breakfast, 2005
When six friends (including Jeremy Sisto from “Six Feet Under”) lose their way on a trip to a wedding, they end up in a Bed and Breakfast run by a mystical old man (David Carradine from Kill Bill).
But when the innkeepers turn up dead, and the friends are detained until the murder can be solved, they soon find themselves up against a growing army of zombies.
It’s a wild romp with equal amounts of splatter and humor that’s just great fun.
Shower of Blood, 2005
This may, in fact, be the worst movie I’ve ever seen.
A similar premise to Dead and Breakfast, this movie drops five college friends on a road trip at the empty house of one girl’s Uncle Marty. The first half of the movie is simply an excuse to get the women to take their tops off and show what happens when breast implants get overinflated. Then Uncle Marty turns up and soon there are pointless whispering voices (“come this way”), silly shower scenes where the shower nozzle sprays blood, and a confused attempt first to label Marty a cannibal, and then a vampire.
What the frequent images of roses (and rose petals on breasts) have to do with anything, or what the meaning is of the prisoners that Marty keeps in the basement are never explained. This is a film that shows just how bad bad acting can be, especially in the context of a plot that often makes no sense. I hope the writers used pen names.
The Halfway House, 2005
This low-budget straight-to-DVD movie pokes fun at all sorts of exploitation horror flicks and “women in prison” movies. Its propensity for baring breasts unfortunately makes it as much an exploitation film as the films it wants to satire, but it is fun to view if you’ve seen many horror genre movies.
The plot centers around the “Mary Magdalen Halfway House for Troubled Girls” run by a spineless priest with a paddle fetish and an over-the-top sadistic nun (Mary Woronov from Rock n Roll High School and Eating Raoul).
When Larissa’s sister joins a list of women who have disappeared from the house, Larissa (Janet Tracy Keijser from “House on Haunted Hill”) gets herself checked into the halfway house to investigate. She finds catfights, corporal punishment, and something with tentacles accepting sacrifices in the basement.
High Tension, 2005
When two college girls go to stay with family out in the middle of the country in France, the bucolic charm of the countryside doesn’t even have a chance to set in before a serial killer is knocking on their door in the middle of the night. When Alexia’s father answers the door to the stranger, her friend Marie soon finds herself playing a deadly cat-and-mouse game with the killer, who works his way through the house leaving gore in his wake. When he makes off with Alexia in a rusted tank of a vehicle, Marie finally finds her courage and goes after her friend (and secret love) to save her.
While most of the movie is standard serial killer terror fare, it’s taut and well-shot, and will keep you on the edge of your seat for the first hour or more. The movie, unfortunately, capsizes at the end, when the serial killer’s reasons are revealed and he is unmasked. While other movies have carried off this movie’s attempted ending well, High Tension doesn’t manage to connect the dots in a believable way. Nevertheless, most of the film lives up to its name – high tension, high gore and high bodycount.
Man with the Screaming Brain, 2005
A silly Frankensteinian sci-fi/horror farce written, directed and starring Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead), this movie was shot back to back with Alien Apocalypse (also starring Campbell) for the Sci-Fi Channel in Bulgaria (both movies use many of the same actors). Both are now out on DVD, and Screaming Brain is by far the better production, with a campy feel and low budget charm.
Campbell plays William Cole, a business man with a debutante wife who go to Bulgaria on business. While his wife makes time with a Russian cabbie, Cole gets himself bludgeoned on the head by a jealous former girlfriend of the cabbie, who ends up in similar straits. Enter a cornball scientist who has been researching brain transfers, and soon Cole has both his and the cabbie’s brain squeezed into his skull, and a comical farce ensues as they struggle for control of the body while going after their “murderer” for revenge. It’s not a great movie, but it has its amusing moments.
The extra featurette detailing how long it took to get the movie made (the script was written 20 years ago) is as enjoyable as the movie itself.
Lost and Found
Films from the ’80s and ’90s:
The ‘80s produced some of the most memorable, and most silly horror movies of any decade. Here are a few of both that have been reissued this year:
Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn – The Book of the Dead 2, 1987
There is a cult following that has grown up around the Evil Dead movies, both starring Bruce Campbell as Ash (Dead 2 is actually mainly a bigger budget remake of the original shoestring production). And it’s no wonder; Evil Dead 2 is one of the bloodiest, zaniest movies ever shot. Where else will you see a man chainsaw off his own possessed arm, laugh about it and then strap the chainsaw to his stump as a weapon?
The story begins with Ash and his girlfriend crossing a bridge and breaking into a cabin to “have a little fun.” Unfortunately, Ash plays a recording left by the previous occupant that says the words from the Book of the Dead which summon demons.
Exit Ash’s girlfriend, who is first possessed and then relieved of her head by Ash’s shovel. When two other couples find a way to cross the river (the bridge was destroyed by the demons), they soon all find themselves fighting the corpse in the cellar and the demons from outside. It’s a wild, bloody romp like no other. While the stop motion and claymation effects haven’t aged well in this age of digital creatures and effects, the humor of Evil Dead 2 hasn’t slipped at all.
This edition features a sculpted latex cover fashioned to look like the Book of the Dead in the movie. And when you press the eye of the face on the cover, it screams!
Killer Tongue, 1996
The premise is ridiculous – when a meteor lands near the nunnery where Candy, a former bank robber’s accomplice is hiding out waiting for her man to get out of jail, she finds herself overtaken by an alien parasite. The alien makes her tongue grow to ridiculous and deadly proportions and she leaves the gas station to hide in an abandoned roadside bar (along with four pastel-colored poodles).
Very low budget, campy and strange, the movie’s surreal twists and Southwest desert location give it an odd appeal. It features supporting appearances by Robert Englund (Nightmare on Elm Street) playing a repressed homosexual prison head (he plays it so over-the-top it feels like a high school play at times) and Doug Bradley (Hellraiser’s Pinhead).
Dario Argento was already acknowledged as the king of Italian horror cinema for his string of giallo ‘70s films when he put up the money for George Romero to film his seminal Dawn of the Dead in 1979.
More than a dozen years later, Argento finally came to America to shoot his first American production here, co-starring Piper Laurie (Carrie) Frederic Forrest (Apocalypse Now) and Brad Dourif Lord of the Rings). The lead role however, went to his daughter Asia (XxX, Land of the Dead) who plays an anorexic running from a sinister rehab clinic where she was committed after witnessing her father’s decapitation. But the spectre of “The Headhunter,” a serial killer with a head fetish haunts her until the bloody, shocking ending where she must confront her father’s killer.
While not Argento’s best film, Trauma is certainly his best effort of the ‘90s, and this DVD release marks its first uncut release in America.
Not quite as bad as Shower of Blood, this one still is a stinker. A beautiful, but facially maimed co-ed is impregnated by a Predator-like alien.
She is tracked to the sewers by a would-be suitor, who must try to save her – and all womankind – from the creature who wants to start a new hybrid race on earth.
It really is as bad as it sounds.
Ice Cream Man, 1995
This gets its stars for both its campieness and its grossness (at one point, the twisted Good Humor man cuts up an eyeball of one of his victims and feeds it to someone as part of a cone. Ugh!)
The movie is a strange hybrid of feel-good Stand By Me and schlocky low-budget horror gore. The plot is predictable – after seeing the ice cream man shot as a kid, Gregory Tudor (played by Ron Howard’s brother, Clint) grows up in an institution. When he’s released, he rents a hovel from his happily demented former nurse, and opens up the old ice cream parlor of the man he saw shot. Then he starts mixing blood with sugar. Meanwhile a group of Goonies-like kids start trying to prove that the “Ice Cream Man” is responsible for the growing body count.
This one is worth seeing if for no other reason than the scene in which Howard holds up two decapitated heads on sticks and uses them in a macabre puppet show. While it features kids, it ain’t for kids.
Whether you like creaky old black and white spookers or modern manic blood-filled terrathons, you can now bring them home by the handful from WalMart, Best Buy or others, often for less than $10 a pop. So turn out the lights and get the popcorn popping. And get ready to murmur in delighted terror, “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore!”
John Everson is The Star’s Pop Stops music columnist, as well as the editor of the ghost story book Spooks! and author of the Stoker-award winning horror novel Covenant. For information on his fiction and past horror DVD reviews, see www.johneverson.com.