Thursday, June 28, 2007

Interview with Filmmaker Joe Castro

Joe Castro is the creator/director/writer/producer and special FX artist for the recently released Terror Toons 2. He is well-known in the independent horror community as both a director and a special FX artist and has worked on films such as Terror Toons 1 and 2, Campfire Tales, Legend of the Chupacabra, The Jackhammer Massacre, Near Death, Wishmaster 3, Maniacal and many, many more.

We recently had the chance to chat with the enthusiastic and very genuine Joe Castro about his craft(s), his films and his upcoming appearance at the SiliCon Convention in San Jose, California.

Fatally Yours: Hi Joe and thanks so much for chatting with us! You’ve been a long-time horror fan since you were pretty young. What was your first experience with a horror film and how did it make you fall in love and pursue the genre?

Joe Castro: I grew up on a goat ranch in Helotes, TX…. Well when I was 7 years old, on a Saturday afternoon, my father, Martin Castro Jr., sat me down in front of the TV and said “watch this son…you’re gonna like this”. And he was right! It was Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster! My dad was so cool he truly knew what was good for me. Sadly, he passed away 10 years ago. Since that glorious Saturday afternoon I knew I wanted to work in the field of Film and Special Effects.

FY: Your father sounds like a great man! Has your family always been supportive of your film career?

JC: For the most part yes. I practically destroyed the living room floor, the front porch and the barn with my movie magic & SFX “antics”.

FY: What is something your family did that helped you to pursue your filmmaking dreams?

JC: When I was 12 (1982), my mother, who was a high school teacher and my father, who was a TX rancher bought me a state of the art JVC home video camcorder. It was the first of 2 cameras ever on the market offered to the public. On my parents modest income that was 2 months of their full paychecks.

FY: So, with that present in mind, what were your favorite pastimes growing up in Texas?

JC: Running around butt naked with other guys on my high school water polo team in the locker room. LOL! Well that and getting them to take their shirts off for me so I could photograph them and put them in my home splatter movies. These guys were very willing to take of their shirts so I had plenty of exposed flesh to put knarly wounds and gore make-up on for my extravagant death scenes. I have hours and hours of bizarre and fantastic home splatter movies that showcase this work well…we had a lot of innocent fun.

FY: That sounds hot… did you spend a lot of time testing out these kind of special FX?

JC: I spent ALL my time creating SFX.

FY: When did you decide to leave your Texas home and go to California to follow your dreams?

JC: When I was 19, a year after I graduated from high school, I was invited by a fellow pen pal and FX artist, Jerry Macaluso, to come to LA and work in the horror FX shop he had started with friends. So my high school friend, Chris Olivia and I packed a U-Haul and drove to Hollywood, CA. Three months later Chris moved home and I stayed in LA.

FY: Tell us a little about your first recollections about being in California and about your first big break.

JC: I don’t think I’ve had my “big” break yet. I’m still trying to achieve that actually. My partner and Executive Producer, Steven Escobar, tells me he feels my big break happened when I was young and won the national Monsterland magazine FX contest. Joe Dante picked the winner (ME) and I was flown to LA to meet and rub elbows with the who’s who of horror in Hollywood. This is how I first became introduced to Brinke Stevens who stars in Terror Toons 2.

FY: What a great experience! If I’m correct, you started doing special effects work before directing. What made you interested in trying your hand at directing?

JC: Well actually I started directing the same time I started doing FX because I truly feel my career started when my parents bought me the video camera. Fact: you can purchase one of my splatter home movies on the DVD released of Terror Toons 2.

FY: Yes, I loved that one of your first films, Blood Thirst, was available on the TT2 DVD! (More on that later!) If you had to choose between either directing or doing special FX work for the rest of your life, which one would you chose and why?

JC: That is a tough question actually. Do I have to decide right now? LOL! No really ummm…I can say that I would choose directing . Why? Because over the past few years I have moved into other genres of film that are quite gratifying; comedy, drama, melodrama…etc.

FY: Tell us how you came up with the “sick and silly” premise for TERROR TOONS!

JC: Terror Toons is a concept that was inspired by a wicked cartoon cat sticker that my friend Mark Villalobos and I saw on the back of a car while driving to a movie set just outside of LA.

FY: I have to tell you, I adored Terror Toons 2, but why did you decide to a second one?

JC: I created the sequel for Michael E. Kovacs. He loved the first Terror Toons and wanted to pay, Executive Produce, for a second one…so I jumped at the chance to do so. He spared no expense and even allowed us to film in his beautiful home…Thank you Michael!

FY: For the eager fans out there, the question is will there be a third Terror Toons?

JC: YES there will be a TERROR TOONS 3. We are shooting the first footage at the end on July 2007…get ready! It will be the most Sick and Silly of them all…promise! I can’t say right now but I have a huge star that has agreed to participate.

FY: Can you tell us about any other upcoming projects you have in the works?

JC: A comedy TV series and an apocalyptic horror epic. It’s a secret.

FY: We’ll keep it hush-hush! Out of your earlier films, is there one that stands out as being the most fun to work on or one you are most proud of?

JC: The original Terror Toons…because it involves so many of my close friends and The Jackhammer Massacre. I met some really talented peeps on both of these projects…but recently I directed a full blown comedy The Young The Gay and The Restless. I had way too much fun. So we will defiantly do that again.

FY: Your high school short film, Blood Thirst, that is included on the special features of Terror Toons 2, is amazing! It shows that at such a young age, you already had a good grasp of special effects. How did you achieve the effects in that film?

JC: Before I answer, I just want to take a moment and let you know that I am answering these questions, eating a bowl of cereal, listening to my favorite music, while sitting at a desk that was giving to me by my great friend Jerry Macaluso…and I am so grateful at this moment…for my life and I am deeply touched that you asked about this film. Thank you for the kindness and the kind words about Blood Thirst. I just got up from the desk and ran over to the living room floor, laid down on the carpet with our 2 dogs, Buster & Missy and kissed their tummies. I’m Looney! Okay I’m sane again. As a youngster, I used to watch movies on VHS over and over again, most of which were given to me by my awesome 3rd cousins Eddie and Ernest Perez. They were like almost 20 yrs. older than me and way cool. They are the older brothers I never had (so are Michael Kovacs, Jerry Macaluso and Roy Knyrim). They would take me to see all the “Dead” films and Italian Splatter epics on the big screen in downtown San Antonio, TX! I saw The Deadly Spawn at the movie theater called the Aztec 3; it was a gang infested downtown movie theater. Take a guess what the other film was on the bill: Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice. Ok, well I would dissect the scenes from these films shot by shot and re-create them. I would construct the props and execute the FX as best to my ability. That was my FX school. Self taught.

FY: That’s amazing and it’s so nice to see a filmmaker still enthusiastic about their earlier work! Fans will get a chance to meet you at the SiliCon convention in San Jose, California in October. How did you become involved with the convention and what do you have in store for us there?

JC: I contacted the festival via Myspace and asked to participate if there was room to promote Terror Toons 2. Also, I love doing make-up in public and they asked if I would participate in an FX panel…I plan on creating/applying FX make-up for a full scale Fulci Zombie for all at the convention to witness.

FY: Joe, it certainly was a pleasure talking with you and we look forward to seeing you at SiliCon!

JC: Likewise as well! I plan on having a great time and hope others will join in the freak’n’ fun as well!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Maximum Overdrive (1986)

When a comet passes Earth, all the machines suddenly take on a mind of their own…they come to life and set about slaughtering the planet’s population. Everything from cars, trucks, lawnmowers and electric knives go on a bloody rampage. A few good folks over at the Dixie Boy truck stop, led by Billy (Emilio Estevez), hole up and try to survive the killer machines and the big rigs circling the truck stop as they plan their escape.

More comedy than horror or sci-fi, Maximum Overdrive is enjoyed to the fullest extent if you know what to expect. Sure, it’s cheesy and nonsensical, but it has killer big rigs!!

When the movie first came out, it was slammed by critics across the board, but with good reason. Maximum Overdrive has humongous plot holes, bad acting, horribly annoying characters and bad writing. This is odd, because it was adapted from Stephen King’s short story Trucks by King himself. Besides writing duties, King also made his directorial debut (and, unfortunately, his last…King would never direct again).

With all these counts against it, you might be wondering how on earth I could ever recommend anything so poorly written and acted? Let me tell you, it’s all about the action sequences and its fun, no-holds-barred feel. From the opening sequence of a draw bridge going up of its own accord and tossing cars one on top of the other to an ATM machine with an attitude problem, Maximum Overdrive delivers!

It also doesn’t shy away from the blood and gore, something that almost got it slapped with an X rating at the time. A soda vending machine attacks a group of baseball playing kids, torpedoing its cans at full speed toward their little bodies. A steamroller goes after said kids, flattening one in the process. There are plenty of scenes of people getting run over, plus electrocutions, people getting gunned down and so on.

Let’s not forget about the explosions either. It seems that the shady owner of the Dixie Boy kept quite an arsenal of weapons at hand, including a rocket launcher. We get to see plenty of huge trucks go kablooey! Countless other explosions, fireballs and daring escapes populate the movie and keep it fun (also keeping our minds off glaring plot holes).

The action is backed by the soundtrack, composed entirely of AC/DC songs. AC/DC was handpicked by King to be featured exclusively on the soundtrack and their music complements the film’s fun and wild tone wonderfully.

As mentioned before, Maximum Overdrive has its problems. For one, it features acting that is mediocre to grating, with notable actors including Emilio Estevez as an expressionless “hero” and a screechy and annoying Yeardley Smith (voice of Lisa Simpson on The Simpsons). Nothing much more should be said of the acting, with the only thing worse being the characters themselves. Having no sympathy for anyone really makes you root for total destruction by the machines!

Also, the story is full of plot holes. For example, big rigs and other cars have a mind of their own, but one characters’ car never misbehaves. While the story has a strong start, it quickly sags when the focus shifts to the self-propelled big rigs circling the Dixie Boy. The dialogue and interactions between the characters seem pretty ridiculous, but you could also chalk that up to all the hammy acting (one of the most cringe-worthy being when a waitress wails at the machines, “WHO MADE YOU?!? WE MADE YOU!!”).

Surprisingly, King does a pretty good job at directing, and the direction actually ends up elevating the film rather than taking away from it. There are some nice shots here that emphasize the creepiness of big rigs and other equipment operating on its own. I also loved the scene where a young survivor is pedaling through his corpse-strewn neighborhood.

If you’re hankering for a good old fashioned smash ‘em and bash ‘em up flick (where the smashing and bashing is for the most part done by big rigs) that’s all fluff and fun, grab a few beers and your friends to settle in with Maximum Overdrive. If nothing else you can make a drinking game out of it and chug anytime you hear any variation of, “Who made you?!”

Available on Amazon!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Black Sheep (2007)

In the New Zealand horror comedy Black Sheep, Henry Oldfield (Nathan Meister) returns to his childhood farm 15 years after his father’s death and another traumatic incident that left him with a severe phobia of sheep. His older brother Angus (Peter Feeney) now runs the sheep farm, and has been doing illegal experiments and genetically engineering sheep. Meanwhile, two hippie animal liberation nuts, Grant (Oliver Driver) and Experience (Danielle Mason), are intent on breaking into the laboratory where Angus and his scientific team conduct their experiments. Grant steals a large container that holds what appears to be a fetus of a sheep in a toxic waste sludge, but clumsily drops it while running away from the scientists. Suffice to say, Grant gets bitten by the evil little fetus-lamb, and it goes on to spread its vile disease to other usually placid sheep, turning them all into bloodthirsty killing machines. Henry, Experience and farm hand Tucker (Tammy Davis) all team up against the gore-hungry sheep, but they have far bigger problems. It seems that anyone who gets bitten by an infected sheep transforms into a giant sheep-human mutant. Also, Angus is not giving up his experiments or his precious sheep without a fight. Can Henry and the gang save the rest of New Zealand from the spread of the baaaaaaaad sheep?

I caught this fun summer flick at a fairly small and packed theater, and let me tell you, the audience’s reactions were one of the best parts! I got there early, so I got to see people’s reactions as they trickled out of the first showing…smiles, giggles, high fives…this was looking good! And as I left the theater that evening, I was doing the exact same thing…smiling, giggling and high fiving!

Now, this flick definitely isn’t perfect and does have its flaws, but for an entertaining popcorn movie in the heat of summer it works just fine.

The films first 30 minutes are its strongest, introducing some uproarious comedic elements, one decidedly creepy and gruesome scene and a gaggle of goofy characters. I especially enjoyed the evil head scientist (played by Tandi Wright) and all her delightful wickedness. Perhaps it’s just me, but I though Peter Feeney, who played Angus, had a very Bruce Campbell feel to him. Either way, he played a dastardly villain and was a lot of fun! Nathan Meister as Henry and Danielle Mason as Experience also did spectacular jobs with their characters, as both their characters changed the most.

Director and writer Jonathan King shows us some truly beautiful vistas of New Zealand, and even manages to pull off the shaky cam technique quite well. His direction is sure and steady, and while he doesn’t show us any fancy footwork, he really doesn’t need to. With a premise like “killer sheep run rampant” one doesn’t really need artsy camera work, now do they? With the script, King nails some comedic scenarios early on, but the jokes run out pretty quickly after the first half. The second half of his story follows the trail of dismembered corpses strewn about by the infected sheep. After the jokes run out, King unwisely falls back on gore, leaving a sagging storyline in its wake.

Speaking of the gore, it is unmistakably present, with throats ripped out, legs and arms chewed off, large bites taken out of people, skinned sheep, heads being blown off, nasty human-to-sheep mutations/transformations and a pit full of decomposing and bloody animal remains that our intrepid heroes fall ::splat!:: right into. Gorehounds will be happy, though the film never goes as far as Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (aka Braindead) or Bad Taste, both of which Black Sheep has been compared to. All you skeevy sleazemongers will be sad to see no nudity on display, though there are two displays of “inter-species erotica” that might tantalize a few out there (it’s a movie about sheep…you didn’t expect that?).

The gore and special FX in the film look amazing. Luckily, no obvious CGI was used and everything looks all the better for it. One transformation from man to sheep was pretty cool (though some of it took place in the shadows) and it reminded me of the transformation scene in The Howling (still one of the best, in my opinion). Even the hulking sheep-man hybrid wasn’t done with CGI and it looked damn cool.

Black Sheep is a fun, breezy and creative film that is a breath of fresh air in a stale summer bloated with sequels, harebrained movies stuffed with empty calorie stars and PG-13 crap. Sure, it’s not perfect, but sitting in a darkened theater and sharing a horror comedy with an eager audience that loves the silliness transpiring on screen as much as you do is as close to perfection as I want to get.

Available on Amazon!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Black Cat (1981)

I was excited to learn that Lucio Fulci had directed The Black Cat, based on the Edgar Allen Poe story of the same name. I figured it would be another Fulci film that just might stand proudly among the greats Don’t Torture A Duckling, Zombi and The Beyond. Unfortunately, I was sadly disappointed by the boring Black Cat.

The Black Cat tells the tale of Professor Miles (Patrick Magee), a man obsessed with communicating and talking with the dead. He sneaks into the cemetery at night like a common graverobber, seeking to record the voices of the deceased. He also has a black cat, whom he has some kind of psychic link to. Meanwhile, Jill (Mimsy Farmer) is a visiting photographer in the small town who is intrigued by Professor Miles’ experiments. When deaths that appear to be accidents start occurring, Jill believes Professor Miles’ black cat is to blame.

I would tell you more, but I was too busy fast forwarding through the oodles of extreme close-ups fixed upon people’s startled eyeballs.

I think the most disappointing thing about The Black Cat was that it was only loosely based on Poe’s tale and hardly resembles it at all (except for the end). Instead, we get a killer cat that stalks people and appears and reappears at will. Sure, it causes an impalement, a couple to die from gas poisoning, a woman to burn alive and lots of scratches, but the film plods along and is unusually subdued for Fulci. It even seems devoid of his usual panache and relies way too heavily on the close-ups of eyes to signal tension between characters.

This subdued approach let me down big time…it seemed to lack the shocking images of The Beyond and Zombi as well as lacking a tense storyline like Don’t Torture a Duckling (probably my favorite Fulci film). The story meandered, went nowhere and doubled back, losing me along its uneventful journey.

The acting and the characterization were also off as well. The acting is nothing special with the exception of some performances that were so outlandish it felt like they were falling into parody. Example: when a woman’s house went up in flames, she ran directly to a room engulfed in fire and tried to beat at it with a pillow. Her stupidity is rewarded as she goes up bigger and brighter than a Roman candle. This unbelievable action is only one of several instances where the characters’ kooky actions just don’t make sense. Many a time I was left rolling my eyes and reaching for the fast forward button.

I think had I been in a lazier mood, The Black Cat could have been a little better, but as it stands I still think it is a film that falls very short of the standard Fulci set with some of his other films. The Black Cat may be worth checking out if you are a Fulci completest, but anyone else is recommended to check out other, better Fulci films.

Available from Amazon!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Witchboard (1986)

Ouija boards have always freaked me out and to this day I refuse to mess around with one. If they do work, who knows what might be lurking on the other side, biding its time for someone stupid enough to let it through. Witchboard, a lesser-known ’80s gem, utilizes this fear to create an entertaining and exciting movie that still manages to feel fresh after 20 years.

Jim and Linda are hosting a party in their apartment. Among the guests there is Brandon, Jim’s ex-best friend and Linda’s ex-boyfriend. Things are tense between Jim and Brandon, and things further escalate when Brandon whips out his Ouija board and enlists Linda’s help to contact a spirit of the young boy named David. Jim scoffs and mocks the Ouija board and the spirit that Brandon contacts, agitating the spirit and causing Brandon to storm off in a huff, leaving the Ouija behind.

The next day, Linda is drawn to the Ouija and attempts to contact David herself. It works, and soon the spirit is being quite friendly towards her and even helping her find a lost ring. Things take a sharp turn into “uh oh” territory when Linda gets overly agitated at Jim, starts cussing heavily and, oh ya, people start dying. The spirit of David becomes more and more violent and Linda becomes more and more obsessed with the Ouija board. Brandon and Jim must band together to stop the spirit before Linda falls under complete possession.

Witchboard is a rare film out of the ME! decade that doesn’t rely on the overdone boobs ‘n’ blood formula. It actually takes the time to craft some believable characters, gives us a love triangle that doesn’t feel forced and even has some atmospheric dream sequences, not to mention stylish camera work, that are both reminiscent of Italian horror films. With these strong elements, it creates one heck of an entertaining flick.

The character development alone, even with characters who die, is worth noting. Unlike most horror movies, we actually get to know the characters and they aren’t treated like bland cardboard cutouts. The characters explore various themes like love, friendship, motherhood, hate and so on, and thanks to writer (and director) Kevin Tenney the themes fit naturally and realistically in the film.

The acting is great, especially from Todd Allen playing Jim. Allen plays Jim as goofy but with a chip on his shoulder, and through the film his many layers are revealed. Tawny Kitaen not only has the best name ever, but is also pretty adorable as Linda, even though she does have a few fits of overacting. Brandon is played by Stephen Nichols, whose background in soap operas definitely shows. Still, his performance shouldn’t be dismissed by a few instances of silly overacting. The chemistry between the three leads is what really sells the film, as well as the development of each character.

Along with a well-written script, director Kevin Tenney (most famous for Night of the Demons) excels at creating a visually enticing film. Along with cinematographer Roy H. Wagner, Tenney crafts some impressively stylish scenes. I enjoyed the eerie dream sequences, the first of which gave me a real jolt! The sharp camera work keeps the plentiful jump scares feeling fresh while lending a whole other level of creepiness to the proceedings.

To lighten up the film, Kathleen Wilhoite appears as the flamboyant and wise-cracking psychic Zarabeth, who appears shortly only to quickly be impaled on an especially sharp sundial. We also get some silly jokes from Jim. For the most part, though, the tone of the film is serious and suspenseful.

Due to budgetary constraints, there isn’t that much gore save for some blood, a slashed neck and a hatchet to the head. I was glad that actual  story was interesting enough to hold its own and didn’t need to rely on gore for cheap thrills.

My only real complaint was the addition of a subplot that involved a detective (played by Burke Byrnes) following Jim around. It didn’t feel like it fit into the story and really hampered some scenes.

Despite that minor quibble, I felt Witchboard was a hidden delight. In the era of excess, it managed to be restrained, subtle and still knock my socks off with its well-developed story and characters. If you want to see an ’80s movie that is original, suspenseful and different from all the boobs ‘n’ blood slashers, check out Witchboard.

Oh, ya, and if you still want boobs ‘n’ blood, it’s got an unforgettable shower scene!

Available from Amazon!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Terror Toons 2 (2007)

For fans of kooky and creative low budget movies, Terror Toons 2 is a wild and crazy ride! The fun begins with little Tiffany Saunders, who is having her twelfth birthday party. Her friends and family arrive to stuff their faces with cake and watch her open presents. Meanwhile, in cartoon land, Hansel and Gretel decide to play in the woods against their mother's warnings. They come upon a house made of candy, end up stuffing their faces and puking, and are forced to go inside to find help. Instead, they find a witch (played by Brinke Stevens in a delightful cameo) who wants to eat their tender flesh to the bone. When she gives them poison and a rat to "make them feel better," they mistakenly mutate into Terror Toons!

Back at the Saunders, Tiffany receives a Terror Toons DVD (Devil Video Disc) in the mail with no return address. She puts it on and soon all hell breaks loose! The house and its inhabitants are in a strange hellish cartoon dimension and are forced to play deadly games like "musical scares" with Hansel and Gretel. One by one, the party guests start dying gruesome deaths by electrocution, by a giant Acme-type mallet, by cooties, by tickling, by "playing doctor" and so on. It's up to Tiffany's older sister Tina, her boyfriend and his two friends to stop the Terror Toons, which means going into Hell itself to chat with the son of Satan and take on superhero personas to kick ass!

I will be the first to admit that when I first received Terror Toons 2, I wasn't looking forward to watching it. Boy, was I ever wrong! Though this definitely isn't everyone's cup of tea, I thoroughly enjoyed the frenetic pacing and the silly and cartoonish feel of the film.

Joe Castro is definitely one of the most creative and imaginative independent filmmakers with his creation of Terror Toons. The candy-colored splatter coupled with the zany mix of animation, live action, creature FX and other special effects is unlike anything I have ever seen! Terror Toons 2 is like Saturday morning cartoons for gore-hungry grown-ups! The wildly colorful sets and costumes, the Looney Tunes sound effects and the grue-drenched death scenes all have a funhouse-feel that add to the wacky atmosphere of the film. If you are looking for a serious, character-driven horror movie or a typical slasher with lots of T&A, look elsewhere, because Terror Toons 2 is all about manic-paced silliness!

The performances are all a bit over the top, but they all fit into the feel of the film. The real stand-out in the film is Emma Bing as Tina. She is completely natural in front of the camera, and reminds me of a younger Amanda Bynes. Also, Fernando Padilla and Tina Mahler both do a fantastic job playing Hansel and and Gretel, especially with the costumes they had to wear. I loved every second they were onscreen!

My only complaint with the film is that it dragged a little toward the middle and the rest of the film felt stretched out. I feel like it could have been tightened up a considerable amount and shortened. It runs under an hour and a half, but it feels like it goes on much longer than that.

One major perk of the DVD is the amount of special features the disc comes packed with. It includes the short Terror Toons 1.5 that plays before the movie, an uncut "Dr. Carnage and Max Assassin" Terror Toon, an uncut "Hansel & Gretel" Terror Toon starring Brinke Stevens, Behind the Scenes of TT2 Gore, a slide show, commentary with writer/director Joe Castro, producer/editor Steven Escobar and actress/stunt coordinator Tina Mahler, a Terror Vortex and, my personal favorite, Blood Thirst, a short film Castro made with his buddies in high school. The special effects that Castro managed to pull off for Blood Thirst were absolutely amazing considering how young he was. It's a very fun, blood-drenched short to watch!

Even though I wasn't expecting to enjoy this film, it thoroughly delighted me! If you are looking for a cartoonish kaleidoscope of gore that is zany, maniacal and unabashed, Terror Toons 2 is your ticket to an LSD-laced Looney Tune trip!

Buy Terror Toons 2!

The Bet (2007)

A woman lies in a dingy hallway between two apartment doors. She is bound and gagged, with confusion clouding her eyes. Debris clutters the derelict hallway as she tries to figure out why she is there and how she got there. Suddenly, the left hand door opens and the woman is dragged into a man’s apartment. He drops her on the floor, and continues watching television, where two puppets are delivering the news. After exactly one minute, he picks her up by her ankles again and drags her back into the hall. Door number two opens and another man carries her into his apartment. She goes back and forth between the two apartments every minute. At each brief apartment visit, we learn more about the woman and her mysterious past as well as the two men and exactly what "the bet" entails.

For a low budget short film clocking in at only 19 minutes The Bet looks absolutely amazing. The film quality is so great that when I first put the film in the DVD player, I thought it was a big-budget production. Director of Photography Kurt Rauf did an amazing job as the film actually looks like it was shot on 35mm. The mood of the film is immediately set by the low lighting and dark, grimy look of the film. The foreboding atmosphere is intensified by the eerie and punctuated score. What makes this film even more incredible is that The Bet is co-writer/director Michael Dunn's first film! If this is a taste for what's to come from this filmmaker, I'll be the first in line for his next film.

The acting in the film was top-notch, with Lou Diamond and Walt Turner doing an amazing job with each of their characters. As the bound and gagged woman is shuttled between apartments, the layers of each character unfold, revealing more and more about the two. Diamond and Turner do an excellent job of portraying their characters' depth in the short amount of time. Courtney Gardner-Stavros, playing the woman who's fate is in the hands of the two men, conveys pain and confusion without having to say a word. Even the two actors (Mat Planet and Shannon Sarver) who give life to the puppets on the newscast do a tremendous job.

Director Dunn says that the idea for the film came from his wife's reoccurring nightmare. From there, Dunn wrote a short story based on the nightmare and went on to co-write a screenplay with Chris Smith to turn into a short, low-budget film. Dunn and co-writer Smith have crafted a well-paced, intelligent, eerie and intriguing short film. The mysterious hallway and its two gambling inhabitants, flashes of the woman's past and the ending all point to a far "bigger picture" perspective. Though the film's fantastic ending is open for interpretation, it contains a supernatural element that led me to believe the two men were much greater and more important than they first seemed. They hold the key to people's fates and gamble with human souls. I will leave it at that, because I don't want to give too much away, but it has an ending that left me awestruck.

The Bet just had its world premiere at the CineVegas film festival on June 13th. Look for it at other film festivals soon and go see it if you have a chance.

The Bet comes highly recommended as "a sure thing" from yours truly!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Salvage (2006)

Salvage is part slasher, part psychological thriller and even has a dash of humor thrown in for good measure. Written and directed by the Crook Brothers, Salvage is a smart, twisted and suspense-filled film that kept me on the edge of my seat.

Claire is a 19-year-old gas station attendant in a small town. After working the night shift, she waits for her boyfriend Jimmy to pick her up. Instead, a man named Duke drives up in Jimmy's truck, saying he was sent to give her a lift. Claire nervously accepts and after a creepy exchange with Duke she is dropped off at home. Claire locks and bolts the front door as Duke drives away, but fails to notice the back door is wide open until it is too late. Duke clocks her, drags her down into the basement and kills her. Suddenly, Claire is back at the gas station and her last day repeats itself. No matter how many times Claire changes the events of her last day or tries to figure out what is going on, Duke always finds and kills her. She is forced to repeat her last day over and over. Can Claire figure out what is happening to her and who Duke is before she is killed yet again?

Salvage really impressed me, as I didn't go in expecting too much. The story, written by the Crook Brothers, is taut and kept me wildly guessing what was happening up until the end. Is Claire crazy? Is she having premonitions? Is the town in on it? Is she imagining everything? Who is Duke and why is he doing this? Though the ending isn't difficult to figure out, that didn't detract from my enjoyment of the film.

An interesting aspect of the film is that unlike most horror films, Salvage is shot in broad daylight instead of nighttime. This gives the film an even more eerie, disorienting feel. You would think that showing everything in the daytime would make the film less scary, but the opposite is true. Daylight actually makes the film more frightening and fills it with dread. There are also some great camera angles (especially when Duke drags Claire down the stairs) and compositions that always keep the film interesting.

It also helps that the film has wonderful acting from the leads. As Claire, Lauren Currie Lewis is fantastic. She is believable, natural, smart and self-reliant. She has a very girl-next-door quality, and whenever Duke caught up with her I really felt for her. Speaking of Duke, he is played by Chris Ferry. From the moment that Duke first invades the screen I could sense his ominous intentions. Ferry plays Duke with a frightening intensity that shook me to the core! Even when he has his moments of dark humor, Ferry doesn't let you forget that Duke is a deadly killer. Balancing out the foreboding atmosphere of the film is Cody Darbe as Claire's boyfriend Jimmy. He is a comedic jolt that alleviates the tension throughout the film. I was surprised to find that this is Darbe's first on-screen role because he is completely natural in front of the camera!

If you are a gorehound looking for a torture flick, you're looking at the wrong movie, buddy. Salvage does not contain the amount of gore that would satiate most grue fiends, though the amount contained is appropriate for the film. There is a very nice "face lift" scene, complete with the sounds of flesh being peeled off, that was definitely cringe-worthy, as well as some brutal violence towards Claire. She gets punched, kicked in the face and further battered by Duke, but the camera remains at a distance. Still, these scenes of violence are pretty hard to watch and very believable!

If you are looking for something different that melds together the aspects of a slasher film and a psychological thriller I highly recommend checking out Salvage. It's a clever and highly entertaining way to spend a little under an hour and a half.

Available from Amazon!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Masters of Horror - The Screwfly Solution (2006)

With a sudden spike in violence aimed at women, two scientists, Allen (Jason Priestley) and Barney (Elliott Gould) discover that this alarming trend is spreading throughout the world much like a disease would. They link the disease back to the eradication of the screwfly. In the 1950s, the screwfly caused so much devastation to livestock that the government sterilized as many of the male flies as possible. Since they could not reproduce, the species was soon wiped out. Allen and Barney have adapted this practice for use in other countries, slightly altering the formula to effect only the species they want to get rid of. Now, it looks like someone has turned the tables on the human race and is using the same technique to wipe us off the face of the earth.

The disease is triggered by sexual arousal, turning men aggressive and violent. They then brutally kill women and can spread the disease to others. Those infected claim that God made them do it and they go on to speak about beautiful, but different-looking, angels that spoke to them. Soon, a religious fervor grips those inflicted.

It’s up to Allen and Barney to find a solution for the epidemic before the men kill every last woman and the human race no longer has the ability to reproduce. Can they stop the infection from spreading to themselves?

Meanwhile, Allen’s wife Anne (Kerry Norton) and daughter Amy (Brenna O’Brien) must worry about the increasingly aggressive male presence that threatens them and the rest of the female population.

The Screwfly Solution is Joe Dante’s second entry into the Masters of Horror series (after first season’s Homecoming) and it is quite a cut above the usually ho-hum entries. This entry is a stand out, and like Homecoming, has social commentary aplenty for those that like their horror nice and meaty. It touches on everything from global warming, environmentalism, fundamentalist and extremist religious views, feminism, misogyny and the “battle of the sexes.” This film tries to bring to light these issues and at least makes the viewer think.

The violence towards women in the film is brutal and unflinching. It never objectifies or eroticizes the violence but keeps it frightening and horrible. There are some bloody bits here and there, but it is not a gore-drenched episode. Violence towards women in horror movies is nothing new, but something about it in this episode makes it all the more vile and inexcusable. The way the military responds to this tidal wave of women’s deaths is appalling and made my fists clench. This episode also shows how disposable women are considered in other countries and will perhaps give pause for people to think just how bad it is for women all over the world. In the film, as the bruised and battered pour into a women’s shelter, one former victim remarks how while she always thought she was alone, she was actually in the majority and “normal” when she was being beaten by her male partner.

The Screwfly Solution has some above-average acting, especially by lead Kerry Norton as Anne. Her character works at the local women’s shelter and is strong, self-assured and happy with her family life. She is married to Allen (Priestley doing a surprising good job, despite a few overly dramatic scenes) and has a teenage daughter named Amy. Norton does a great job playing the confident character from successful career and family woman to a woman on the run from the male populace. Elliott Gould was also a delight to see in a more serious role (even if he did throw in a few quips here and there). I only wish I had seen more of Gould throughout the episode.

Sam Hamm and Joe Dante have done a great job adapting the short story from James Tiptree, Jr. While I’ve never read the short story, I do hear from others that the film does follow the story quite closely. It is a little uneven, with the second half slowing down considerable as circumstances get more and more dire. I have also heard gripes about the pretty abrupt ending, but I actually enjoyed it. We finally get to see the ethereal “angels” that everyone who has the disease is talking about, and lemme tell ya, these aren’t no ordinary halo-crowned, white-robe-wearing pinnacles of glory!

If you are looking for a tense, smart and sociopolitical Masters of Horror episode, Joe Dante’s The Screwfly Solution comes highly recommended.

Available from Amazon!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Hostel: Part II (2007)

When Hostel first came out, I avoided it in theaters. I figured it was a sorry excuse to exploit the bread and butter of the horror genre, the blood and nudity. After it came out on DVD, I still waited a few months before tepidly picking it up. When I finally watched it, I was blown away by its smarts, its clever foreshadowing and its commentary on the world we live in today without sacrificing its extremely brutal entertainment. Suffice to say, I couldn’t wait to see what Eli Roth would do with its sequel. I am happy to report that Hostel: Part II returns with an even bloodier, more brutal and fun film that is more a continuation of the story than a sequel that is sure to please fans!

It begins right where the first film left off, with Paxton (Jay Hernandez) having escaped and hiding out at his girlfriend’s family’s farm. He’s having nightmares about the Elite Hunting Agency and hasn’t even told his friend Josh’s mother that her son is dead. It doesn’t take long for heads to roll and we meet a new group of American tourists in Rome. These three girls, Beth (Lauren German), Lorna (Heather Matarazzo) and Whitney (Bijou Phillips), are heading to Prague, but our convinced by new friend Axelle (Vera Jordanova) to go with her to Slovakia for the therapeutic hot springs. When the girls arrive at the now infamous hostel, bids are immediately placed on the girls’ lives from wealthy people around the world via cellphone, PDA and laptops. The winning bidders quickly arrive in Slovakia for their chance to kill a human being. Among the arrivals is an American businessman (Richard Burgi), who has bought two of the girls, one for him and one for his friend Stuart (Roger Bart). As the three girls get separated, we also learn more about the actual hunting agency and get a peek “behind the scenes.” The Bubblegum Gang also makes a few more appearances. Everything leads up to the blood-gushing finale, which has a few surprises up its sleeve.

With Hostel: Part II, Eli Roth has hit it out of the ballpark. This sequel to Hostel is everything a fan could ask for! It’s well-constructed, it doesn’t insult the audience, it’s smart, it’s entertaining and it delivers the blood-soaked goods!

I was definitely looking forward to Hostel: Part II, but I was also a little anxious to see how it turned out. I was hoping that Roth didn’t just make another Hostel only this time with women as the victims. Luckily, the movie isn’t just a repeat of Hostel, but adds to the story and tells us more about the powerful Elite Hunting Agency. It also brings back several characters from the first film, including the creepy hostel desk clerk and the Bubblegum Gang, to name two, which were a delight to see. Instead of a sequel, it’s more a continuation of the first film, which definitely works in its favor.

Unlike the first film, Hostel: Part II dives right into the grue and resurfaces just long enough to take a breath before plunging back into the crimson. Scythes, power tools, scissors and numerous other instruments of pain release the flow of blood while we are privy to decapitations, shootings, a throat slitting and various methods of torture. My favorite scene of torture, and perhaps the most cringe-worthy scene for men, occurs toward the end and involves a man’s testicles being menaced by a pair of scissors. In fact, I think I scared my boyfriend a little with my maniacal laughter throughout this scene. Another scene, involving a tub, a candlelit atmosphere and the well-known promotional image of a naked girl hanging upside down is the most bloody in the film and another of my favorites.

Hostel: Part II, like the first film, takes its time to develop the characters and show us different hardships they go through when traveling in Europe. The girls don’t all get along and they are not all likable. Whitney, the party girl, and Lorna, the sensitive, getting-in-touch-with-her-feelings type, clash, while Beth is daddy’s little rich girl. Yet, when they face pushy, abusive guys on the train and are abducted from the hostel, you really do feel for them. Very much like the first film, while the characters might not all be likable you still empathize with their pain.

I was pretty impressed with the acting. I really wasn’t expecting too much from the leads, but they definitely delivered. Lauren German was the standout actress in the film, portraying Beth as strong, smart and self-reliant. Vera Jordanova also impressed me with her performance as the shady Axelle. For her first feature film, she did an excellent job going from friendly and helpful to creepy and cruel. Roger Bart also gave a multi-layered performance as the meek and conflicted Stuart. Heather Matarazzo and Bijou Phillips also gave spot-on performances as unlikable characters that we actually ended up feeling for as they are tortured. It was a joy to see the still gorgeous Edwige Fenech in a small cameo, as well as Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato in a cameo as a cannibal within the hunting agency.

Hostel: Part II is everything Eli Roth promised. He has truly made a film (and a sequel at that!) for the fans that delivers all the horror we demand. Hostel: Part II just may very well be even better than Hostel and had me leaving the theater with a huge grin plastered on my face!

Get it on Amazon!

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Alone With Her (2007)

"1 in 12 women and 1 in 45 men will be stalked in their lifetimes."

"1.4 million people are stalked every year in the United States."

"76% of women killed by their intimate partners were stalked before they were killed."

These are just a few of the distasteful facts about stalkers that are revealed at the beginning of Alone With Her. As a woman, the dangers of "peeping toms" and stalkers have always been prevalent, but technology today is making it easier than ever for anyone to purchase cheap and tiny video cameras that can be hidden in alarm clocks, cell phones, pens, plants, teddy bears, eyeglasses, hats and clothing.

Doug (Colin Hanks) enjoys bumming around town, hidden camera shoved into a bag, and video taping women without their knowledge. He loves taping scantily-clad sunbathers at the beach, up girls’ skirts and down their tops at the store and the occasional pretty dog-walker at the park. It’s at the park that he first sees Amy (Ana Claudia Talancon) and is attracted to her vulnerability after she gets teary-eyed when watching a touchy-feely couple. Doug feels some kind of twisted connection to her, so he follows her home and bugs her house with tiny cameras – in the bathroom, in the bedroom, on the patio and in the living room. He watches her day and night, learning all her secrets, all her likes and dislikes and her schedule until he deems himself ready enough to meet her face-to-face in a “chance” encounter. The nebbish Doug manipulates Amy and uses his knowledge of her to infiltrate her life. After they become acquaintances at the coffee shop Amy frequents, Doug puts himself in a position to continually come to Amy's rescue. A budding artist, Doug designs her a site where she can feature her paintings and also gets her a gallery showing, where she sells her first pieces of art. Yet, when a new man comes into Amy's life or a concerned friend gets the heebie jeebies from him, he makes sure to clear the pathway so nothing and no one will interrupt his pursuit of her. He even goes so far as to get Amy fired, poison her, make her violently ill and give her a severe allergic reaction with a substance he puts on her sheets. How far is Doug willing to go to fulfill his obsession?

Alone With Her is an intelligent, socially aware film that scared me enough to lock all the doors, close all the blinds and peer suspiciously at my alarm clock as the end credits rolled. There's no doubt that after viewing this film you too will have these severe, paranoid reactions!

The entire film is viewed through Doug's network of hidden cameras. We watch along with Doug as Amy takes a shower, does her makeup, talks on the phone with her mom, speculates with her friend, plays with her dog or plays with herself. Even when Doug encounters her in real life he is wired to tape her every move. Writer/director Eric Nicholas and cinematographer Nathan Wilson wisely chose to give the film an all-too-real and immediate feel as they present the story through the hidden cameras. The result is an unsettling and even dirty feeling that settles over the viewer (and voyeur). I can tell you that after watching this film I felt like I needed a shower! The hidden cameras are invasive and the random static that pops up occasionally never lets us forget that we are trespassing into someone's private life. In fact, this invasion of privacy makes you yourself feel vulnerable and exposed, which gives you all the more reason to sympathize with Amy.

The performances in the film, by both Colin Hanks and Ana Claudia Talancon, are remarkable. Colin Hanks plays against his typical "aw shucks" character as the detached voyeur and obsessive stalker. Hanks as Doug, with his seemingly emotionless voice and twisted logic, is scarier than Michael, Freddy, Jason and Leatherface put together. He is real and he is out in the world, perhaps outside your window right now. Ana Claudia Talancon is vivacious, expressive and gorgeous as Amy. She comes across as natural and someone I would genuinely like to know in real life. This makes her situation all the more tragic and makes us really feel for her throughout the entire ordeal.

The script is never forced, but moves along at a slow yet natural pace. There is no gore, just a slowly building sense of dread as Doug moves in closer and closer to his prey. Let me tell you, though, the dread is almost palatable as the film nears its finale. By this point, I had grown so close to Amy's character that I wanted to reach through the screen and strangle the little twerp as he kept invading and messing with her life. When the film finally concludes with the inevitable, I felt sad, scared and disturbed.

Alone With Her hopes to bring to attention the voyeuristic society we live in. Reality shows rule the boob tube and we are told the government is always watching, so how soon before we start incorporating voyeurism into our own lives? Part cautionary tale, part wake-up call, Alone With Her succeeds in creating an unsettling, uncomfortable, and fear-soaked film with a message.

It comes highly recommended from yours truly.

Available from Amazon!

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Book Review: Found by T. Rigney

It has been brought to my attention that our very own Film Fiend, under the dubious name of T. Rigney, has a published book called Found.: A Novel. After finding it in the local neighborhood and obtaining it for research purposes (as most of you know, the Fiend has been kidnapped and I hoped to learn clues as to the identity of his kidnappers), I discovered that the Fiend is a verbal chameleon, has a twisted mind and, most importantly, should have no trouble ensnaring his very own kidnappers with his spellbinding story-telling ability.

According to the back cover, Found.: A Novel is about Marty, an ideal fifth grader. He gets good grades, listens to his teachers, and doesn't start trouble in class.

But there's a darkness settling over Marty's life.

The kids at school won't stop picking on him, his family life lacks any sort of structure, and his estranged older brother collects severed heads in his bedroom closet. And when Marty's not working on countless comic books of his own design, he's filling his head with the lessons only low budget horror movies can provide. What's a boy to do?

Join Marty as he attempts to find himself amidst the chaos of his everyday life, where severed heads roll like bowling balls and horror movies might just save your life.

As soon as I picked up Found.: A Novel, I couldn't put it down. I took it to work with me and read it on my breaks and at lunch. As soon as I got home at night I would read as much as I could before bedtime. One day I accidentally left it at work and I was soooooo upset (we are talking tears here, honest)! T. Rigney's writing style is definitely addictive and mesmerizing. In this book he writes solely from Marty's point of view and perfectly captures the feelings and actions of a fifth grader. The story is gripping and the first line alone ("My brother keeps a human head in his closet.") grabbed me and immediately drew me in.

The subject matter is unsettling, disturbing and, at times, almost uncomfortable to read (especially near the end). The book builds and builds to a fevered pitch until it reaches its climax and gets downright brutal and nasty. Rigney doesn't keep it all dark and ominous, though. To counteract the sour, there are several sweet parts that will all take you back to your childhood. Who doesn't remember the first horror movies they watched or the first comic books they liked as a kid?! The amazing bit is that Rigney always maintains Marty's perspective on everything that is going on and keeps it realistic. He never once strays from how a young kid would talk and act in certain situations.

I've always appreciated the spunk and bite in the Film Fiend's reviews and now I can see that his talent transcends to other styles and mediums of writing, too. If you want a thrilling, shocking and fast-paced read this summer, look no further than T. Rigney's Found: A Novel.

And, Film Fiend, if you are reading this, this book is your secret weapon to hypnotize the kidnappers and your means of escape! Godspeed!

Buy Found.: A Novel!

Cerritosis (2007)

Cerritosis is a short film from Enity Films that is so nightmarishly whimsical and surrealistically stylish that you can’t help but think what a successful career filmmaker Steven Cerritos has in front of him.

The film opens with old photographs of grotesquely disfigured babies, children and adults. Ballooned heads, conjoined twins, strange growths and abnormal body parts are all on display. Then a dictionary definition pops up on the screen, stating what Cerritosis is.

Then, we meet Roach Far, who is crunching on an apple on a park bench. A Microsoft employee, Mr. Smith, sits down beside him and the two chat for a brief few minutes. When Far begins going off on meeting Bill Gates, Mr. Smith excuses himself. Upon returning home, Far finds an unmarked CD on his doorstep. He pops it into his computer and a creepy, masked entity comes onto the screen, reveling in his exquisite pain and asking Far to become his brother in pain. Far has had enough and runs out of his house and hitches a ride into the nearest city. Here he begins having frightening hallucinations, one of a grinning man playing a piano, another of a man shaving off strips of his skin and yet another of a man hacking something up with a large cleaver. Far admits he’s a freak, and is in fact suffering from the rare Cerritosis and having hallucinations, experiencing schizophrenia and paranoia. Cerritosis is Far’s descent into madness…

Besides the striking imagery and the surreal atmosphere of the film, one of the first things you may notice is that the entire movie is in Japanese with English subtitles. This is just another layer that adds to the surreal and disorienting feel of the film that mirrors Far’s deteriorating state of mind. The strange language choice works strikingly well within the short film.

As for the “look” of the film, everything is saturated in sepia tones with the exception of Far’s hallucinations, which are drenched in bright blues, greens and reds. Filmmaker Steven Cerritos has also gone for a “grindhouse” aesthetic, with lines, scratches and dirt, which lends itself well to the detached and distant feel of the film.

Also, make sure to check out the trailer for the film, which features some amazing artwork by Dimitar Bochukov, who also designed the DVD artwork. Bochukov’s artwork is both unsettling and unusual. I do hope to see more from this artist.

Cerritosis is a very short film, with a run time of just 12 minutes. In fact, my only complaint with the film is that it wasn’t longer, because when it ended, I was left with my jaw on the ground.

Cerritosis is a dizzying descent into madness whose visceral visuals are like a nightmare come to life.

Enity Films Official Site

Cerritosis Official Site

Monday, June 4, 2007

Dark Corners (2007)

The horror intelligencia out there will no doubt adore Dark Corners. It is a “thinking fan’s” horror film, complete with “through the looking glass” juxtaposed realities, a scary serial killer and an ending that will leave most scratching their heads. Writer/director Ray Gower calls the film a mix of “Lynch, Cronenberg and Craven,” which sums up the atmosphere of Dark Corners nicely.

Susan (Thora Birch) has frequent and realistic nightmares about a woman, named Karen (Birch), who looks exactly like her. Brunette Karen lives in a dirty, post-industrial world where most of the inhabitants take their fashion cues from the gutters of Victorian England. When Karen keeps waking up with mysterious welts, scratches and bruises all over her body, she comes to the conclusion that someone is breaking into her dingy apartment while she sleeps to rape and brutalize her. Susan, on the other hand, is blond and lives with her hottie husband (Christien Anholt) in a sparklingly white, large house. Unlike Karen, Susan is very well off and the only problem she has is that she cannot conceive. As Susan is about to begin fertility treatments, her dreams of Karen become more and more vivid, up to the point where Susan feels like two different people. She goes to see a psychoanalyst (Toby Stephens), who hypnotizes her to get rid of the nightmares. Despite the shrink’s help, Susan’s nightmares return when the Night Stalker (Oliver Price), a serial killer on the loose, shows up in both her nightmares and waking life. What is real and what is imaginary? Is Karen just a figment of Susan’s mind or is Susan a figment of Karen’s?

The most striking elements of Dark Corners are its visuals. The contrasting motif of light and dark is very effective in juxtaposing the Susan and Karen characters and makes for stunning set-pieces. Karen’s dark, sooty, Victorian-inspired environment is bizarre and unsettling. The set design is spectacular, with lots of detail to make her world look old-fashioned, even though it is obviously set in the present. Susan’s white picket fence existence is represented by sun-drenched, light and airy rooms. Everything is bathed in bright, warm light that makes it inviting and comforting. Both Karen and Susan’s worlds are represented by dramatic and lush visuals that add so much to the film’s overall look and feel. All in all, the stark contrast between the two realities give the film its off-kilter, unbalanced and unsettling feeling.

The visuals are the film’s strong point, but the acting is also done well. Thora Birch does a wonderful job playing both Susan and Karen, but she seemed a little unbelievable (and young) to be in Susan’s role as happily married, rich and wanting kids. I enjoyed the black humor employed by Karen’s mortician boss, played creepily by Ray Charleson, Oliver Price as the hulking Night Stalker and Toby Stephens as the charming and intense psychoanalyst. There were a few performances that fell flat, but I thought the rest played well enough for this particular film.

Director Ray Gower definitely knows how to craft excitingly ominous scenes and how to translate the character’s disorientation to the audience, but as a writer he needs a little work. I really enjoyed the original story, but it unfortunately begins to fall apart towards the end. The ending is unbelievable (not in a good way) and comes from seemingly nowhere. It just seems to exist for shock value while failing to tie together the rest of the film. The film has inklings of Lynch’s alternating realities, Cronenberg’s “body horror,” and it speaks Craven’s “stalkerese,” but the story never manages to pull everything together to form a cohesive film.

Yet, if you are looking for a film that is decidedly anti-multiplex fare that will keep you guessing, I highly recommend Dark Corners. It is by no means a perfect film, but its nightmarish atmosphere and different approach to horror drew me in and wouldn’t let go.

Order it on Amazon!

Creepshow III (2007)

If you are one of those people who thinks that maybe, just maybe, Creepshow III, the far-flung, money-hungry, distant relative to George A. Romero and Stephen King’s Creepshow I and II, isn’t as bad as everyone says it is and just might deserve a chance in your DVD player, I’m here to stop you. Creepshow III is just as bad as everyone is saying, if not more so. It exists solely to rape horror fans and plunder the good names of Romero and King. Sloppy storylines, unlikable characters and a silly overarching theme that goes nowhere makes Creepshow III painfully boring to sit through.

Creepshow III is a collection of five short segments. The first, “Alice,” tells of a spoiled teenage brat whose father buys a universal remote from the street. Trouble is, whenever he pushes a button, Alice is transported to an alternate reality and her body starts festering with more and more sores. The second story is entitled “The Radio” and tells of a loser security guard who scores big when a radio he buys off the streets starts talking to him and tells him where some loot is hidden. Things go south when the radio tells him to kill to protect their secret. “Rachel the Call Girl” is about the title character, a serial killer prostitute who meets her match in an unusual client. Next is “Professor Dayton’s Wife,” where two of the professor’s students think the professor is playing one of his famous pranks when he introduces them to his fiancĂ©. Thinking he’s created the perfect woman with robotics, the two decide to play their own prank on the professor. Finally, there is “The Haunted Dog,” about an uncaring doctor that is haunted by a homeless man whom he gave a toxic hot dog to.

There is absolutely nothing special about any of these stories and they all meander on (and on and on) as I was stared slack-jawed in disbelief at their stupidity. The only segment I barely enjoyed was “Rachel the Call Girl,” and that is only because the gorgeous Ryan Carty (of The Clique) starred in the episode. The rest of the segments were all pointless, and while the same characters appeared throughout the entire film, there was no clever attempt to tie any of them together.

The characters themselves are all one-dimensional and stereotypical. In the segment “Professor Dayton’s Wife,” I was infuriated to find that the “perfect woman” (according to the obviously out-of-touch writers) was a blonde, giggly housewife that hid any intelligence behind her kitchen apron. All she did was serve the guests food and giggle like a child while dressed like a ‘50s housewife. It’s a horrible travesty that the filmmakers decided to capitalize on the Creepshow pedigree, but it’s also ridiculous that they decided to perpetuate this outdated and offensive “ideal” of the “perfect woman.”

The acting alone should be enough to keep you away, as it was absolutely atrocious. There were a few exceptions, of course (like the previously mentioned Ryan Carty), but for the most part the acting was cringe-worthy to watch. Almost all the actors felt completely unnatural, forced their lines and/or overreacted. Ugh…I’m shuddering as we speak as I think about the acting.

The direction is plain, boring and nothing like the fantastical comic book look of the first and second Creepshow. The opening animated segment looks cheaper than the cartoons played on public access channels and the fortune teller featured on the front of the DVD has no bearing whatsoever on the story. The special effects, what few there are, are CGI and extremely cheesy.

Unless you are an extreme masochist and enjoy pain and misery, I advise you steer clear from the no-good Creepshow III. Avoid this one like you’d avoid a distant relative seeking money…AT ALL COSTS!!

Available from Amazon!

Friday, June 1, 2007

Mr. Buttons (2007)

I’ve always been wary of dolls. Dolls have shiny, empty eyes that seem to follow you, whose positions seem to slightly shift if you leave a room and whose sharp plastic hands like to snatch at your clothes. Dolls seem to lie in wait, waiting for all the lights to go out at night so they can pitter-patter over to your bedside and sink a butcher knife in your back.

You can probably tell that as a child, I wasn’t a big fan of dolls.

Clowns are an even worse phobia of mine…

With this out of the way, you can understand the nervous excitement I felt when I received Steel Web Studios’ newest venture, the short film Mr. Buttons, about a killer clown doll!

The film opens with a black robed Goth girl (C.J. Lassiter) performing a revenge spell against a man (Criston Mitchel) who has spurned her. She cuts off her own finger and wishes nothing but woe against this man, who apparently didn’t tell her that he was married with two young kids before starting their affair. The curse manifests itself in Mr. Buttons, a clown doll, whom she sends to the man’s 6-year-old daughter, Kelly (Alicia Randolph). Mr. Buttons arrives just in time for Kelly’s birthday party, and it isn’t long before the curse takes effect. Every time Kelly wishes for something, Mr. Buttons grants her wish, but always in a twisted and perverse way. When she wishes her parents would stop fighting, Mr. Buttons acquiesces and kills them both. After their violent deaths, Kelly is locked away in a mental institution for 30 years with Mr. Buttons always by her side. When the hospital can’t rationalize all the strange deaths in the place, they release the now grown-up Kelly (Vanessa Mitchell), who returns to her long-estranged brother (Grant Price) to see one of her childhood wishes finally fulfilled.

This low-budget short film surprised me with its above-average quality, creepy story and solid performances. The Mr. Buttons doll alone was enough to give me the heebie jeebies, but the story was there to back it up as well.

Writer and director David Quitmeyer fashions a fast-paced, unsettling film. He wisely avoids showing Mr. Buttons in action (which probably would have looked super cheesy), but instead hints at the unseen doll that wreaks doom. The ending was written extremely well, and certainly made me gasp!

Another thing worth mentioning was the terrifically eerie score by composer Peter J. Gorritz, which sounds like carnival music on a really bad acid trip. The playfully ominous score heightens the atmosphere in creating a tense mood.

The special FX are handled quite well, and while there aren’t that many of them, those that are featured do look realistic. For example, the Goth girl cutting her finger off is cringe-worthy and satisfyingly bloody. The after-effects of Mr. Buttons’ attacks are also shown – Kelly’s parents get sliced and diced with plenty of blood and we get to see a hospital orderly OD on a drug cocktail prepared the extra-special Mr. Buttons way.

Fans of Steel Web Studios beware, though. Mr. Buttons is not the splatterpunk effort that Slaughter Disc was and it doesn’t feature excessive bloodletting or nudity.

All in all, Mr. Buttons is a fun way to spend 20 minutes, especially if you’ve already got clown doll phobias working for you (or against you).

Mr. Buttons will be available on Steel Web Studios' Tales from the Carnal Morgue: Vol. 1 DVD.

Masters of Horror - Right to Die (2007)

Do you remember those crime shows on TV like CSI or Law and Order that advertised most of their sensational stories as having been “ripped from the headlines…”? Well, it seems that nowadays the Masters of Horror series has turned to this technique. Episodes like Homecoming and Pro-Life dealt with such real life issues of the Iraq War and abortion, each with their own horrific take on the subject. Right to Die, like these earlier episodes, will feel very familiar to most viewers as it echoes the controversial case of Terry Schiavo. While the tale, directed by Wrong Turn’s Rob Schmidt and scribed by Graveyard Shift writer John Esposito, begins by borrowing heavily from the famous case, it doesn’t ever get too entrenched in the true story and packs its own distinctive punch.

Dentist Cliff (Martin Donovan) and his beautiful wife Abbey (Julia Anderson) are driving late one night on a dark rural road. Things are tense, as Abbey is obviously pissed at Cliff, who is whining how much he loves her and will never let her go. Abbey seems more interested in sucking on her cigarette, which she proclaims is her “last one,” until she reaches into the backseat to show Cliff something. Cliff suddenly swerves to avoid hitting some debris and the car crashes into a tree. He emerges without a scratch, but Abbey is not so lucky. The accident leaves her drenched in gasoline and she is soon human flambĂ©. The doctors tell Cliff she is in a coma, and will stay in a vegetative state the rest of her life. Her only chance is to get a full body skin graft, but time is quickly running out. Cliff, with reassurance from his sleazy lawyer (Corbin Bernsen), decides to fulfill Abbey’s will and pull the plug, which incites a firestorm of negative media attention. Cliff’s got other problems to worry about, though. Whenever Abbey flatlines, her spirit seeks revenge on those who have done her harm and would profit from her death. Cliff’s got reason to worry; before the accident, Abbey was upset because she found out that Cliff was cheating on her with his perky dental assistant. After the violent hauntings start, Cliff changes his tune and tries everything in his power to keep Abbey alive…

Borrowing from the headlines can be a tricky business. There is a fine line between being socially conscious and downright exploitative. Yet, Right to Die manages to find a comfortable balance between the two. On one hand, it recreates the controversy of the Schiavo case and on the other it manages to entertain with scares and even a bit of sexiness.

I had my doubts about Rob Schmidt being inducted into the Masters of Horror, even though I absolutely adore Wrong Turn. While the Right to Die episode isn’t the cream of the crop, it still delivers the goods and shows a promising director. Schmidt crafts some creepy shots, especially one involving a series of cell phone photos and another involving the severely burned Abbey crawling on the floor that both look very J-Horror inspired. Writer John Esposito does a fine job with the script as well, though some subplots get lost in the shuffle and the story drags a little in the middle.

The special FX done by KNB are quite gruesome, especially Abbey’s extra-crispy body and one scene involving the flaying of someone’s skin. Though there aren’t too many deaths in this episode, there are enough cringe-worthy scenes to more than make up for it.

The actors all do a great job, from Julia Anderson’s icy performance (with one of the best racks I’ve ever seen – and that’s coming from me, a straight girl!) to Martin Donavan’s grieving yet still cheating Cliff and, of course, Corbin Bernsen as the slick lawyer.

Right to Die might not be the best Masters of Horror episode and it certainly has its flaws, but it still manages to entertain and comment on a controversy without ever getting too heavy-handed.
And a pair of perfect boobs go a long way.

Available on Amazon!
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