Horrorfest 2007

the after dark horrorfest (aka 8 films to die for) (aka that horror film festival you didn’t go see) has been running for two years now. each year eight independent horror films are released in theaters for a weekend before quickly going to dvd. the commercials claim every year, certain horror films are deemed too graphic, violent, and disturbing for general audiences…and these are those films. it’s smart marketing, but misleading for the most part. the film’s aren’t all that disturbing, nor are they always the neglected and hidden gems of horror lurking beneath the mainstream that you might be hoping for. however, love or hate the films, it’s still exciting that independent horror is getting some attention. i just finished going through this year’s offerings, which i’ve listed best to worst and ramble on about below.

a surprisingly good film, this is basically a manhattan version of 28 days later. with rat people. there’s lots of not-so-subtle political commentary here, all told through the gritty realism of the uber-shaky cam. new york looks fantastic, the characters are realistic and sympathetic and as silly as the phrase ‘rat people’ might sound, they’re actually pretty scary. unfortunately it seems that every entry into this film festival is legally obligated to ignore one or more of the fundamental aspects of good filmmaking… and in this case, it’s plot and editing. it’s often hard to tell just what the hell is going on due to the frantic editing and, more globally, it’s not always clear how one scene connects to another or what the bigger picture version of the storyline is. the characters and overall situation was so intriguing i was prepared to forgive a few instances of confusion… until the end. i’m all for ambiguous endings, but i hate endings that seem to be saying over-its-shoulder as it walks away from you “hey, wasn’t that awesome? what an amazing and coherent finish to a fabulous story, eh?” all the while leaving you scratching your head and screaming “hey, wait up! what the hell just happened?” i spent a little time online and could find no one that fully understood exactly what we’re to assume happens to the characters at the end. if you have some idea, please let me know. please.

15 minutes into nightmare man, i was regretting my purchase of all eight of these films. this was gonna suck. it’s setup that some bimbo is convinced there’s an african-mask wearing psycho in her dreams that’s trying to kill her. her oh-so-european husband is taking her up to the loony bin in the hopes someone can fix that little problem. they run out of gas and the husband tells his not-really-all-that-mentally-stable wife to stay in the car while he walks 10 miles to get gas. then an african-mask wearing psycho shows up for real and starts stalking her.

at this point, was convinced i would soon need to turn it off. the masked guy was not scary, the characters were ridiculous and i felt like a fool every second i continued to watch it because it seemed like a really, really lame episode of tales from the crypt. the plot seemed horribly predictable… of course the husband is stalking her (likely for insurance money)… and of course he’ll get his karma/morally-dictated gruesome fate by the end. and then something happened…

the wife ran to find safety in a house inhabited by a bunch of college kids playing ‘truth or dare.’ scantily clad women were suddenly running around all over the place, dropping usually amusingly bad dialogue and grabbing crossbows. some guy punched out the wife for raving about the ‘nightmare man’ trapped inside her. the whole film suddenly stole (rather unabashedly) the tone (and even specific shots) from the evil dead series; and while it’s hardly on the caliber of those films… it’d certainly become much more entertaining all of a sudden. the writing was actually more clever than i’d thought as numerous plot twists led to a conclusion far different than the one i’d predicted… and far more satisfying. the whole thing has a very campy 1980s night of the demons feel to it which is a difficult tone to get right, but which nightmare man largely succeeds at. reviews on this one are incredibly mixed, but i recommend it… although, to set the right mood, i might suggest you watch it with friends. and you ask your friends to bring alcohol.

this is one of the better entries this year. i mean, how bad can a movie be that features michael madsen as a fur coat wearing cannibal?

in the future oil has run out and the world sinks into chaos…etc. etc. a group of survivors are trying to start a new society in an abandoned hospital (lead by the annoyingly on-the-nose named dr. darwin) then michael madsen and vinnie jones show up with a bunch of their buddies and decide they want to eat dr. darwin and his friends. lots of running and hiding and axes to the head follow, leading to a rather anti-climatic showdown as the last of would-be-human-mcnuggets decides to fight back. despite several flaws, this is a decent, stylistic entry into the post-apocalyptic survival horror genre and worth checking out.

apart from a few moments in lake dead, this is the only film of the eight that one could really say has some disturbing things in it. based true events, it follows the basic blueprint of hostel and turistas as a group of naive americans get various body parts removed in a foreign country. rider strong (also seen in tooth and nail above) leads the cast… but the stand-out performance comes from former hobbit and goonie, sean astin. cashing in on the fact that seeing an actor we’ve grown up loving play a psycho is always disconcerting, samwise gamgee turns out to be one sick mofo.

the story is interesting and the violence is brutal… and while too much of it plays out like a television crime drama, overall it’s an effective, if somewhat derivative film. dvd features are plentiful, including a group commentary, behind the scenes featurette and short documentary on the story behind the film.

the deaths of ian stone is a quirky little film which has more in common with sci-fi action films such as the matrix and underworld than any horror film. the basic premise is simple, cool and ultimately doomed as you know nothing could ever explain it in a satisfying way.

ian stone is caught in a clive barker version of groundhog day. he keeps getting killed and then promptly wakes up in a new life… one day he’s a taxi driver, the next he’s a hockey player, the next a drug addict, etc. he keeps running into the same people though (who also inhabit new roles) and begins remembering pieces of earlier existences. oh, and there’s these wicked black-smoke-ghost-thingies chasing him around sometimes.

budget constraints and a “not-as-cool-as-the-matrix-or-dark-city” plot explanation keep this from being a really great film. style oozes off the screen (even if some of it is stolen from terry gilliam) and the acting is decent enough. the creature effects range from really impressive to pretty crappy (despite having stan winston involved), but this is the low-budget world after all. ultimately ian stone is just too ambitious for the resources the film had and suffers from the ultimate in lame endings — “you don’t need weapons, skill, or even luck to defeat giant, evil, soul-sucking, could-kill-you-with-their-pinky-finger monsters – all you need is love.”

lake dead is pretty bad. it starts off promisingly enough… some sisters inherit a motel and go to check it out (correct me if i’m wrong, but it’s the same set as in the unfortunately subtitled pumpkinhead 2: blood wings, without a bit of set dressing changed). unfortunately for the sisters and their accompanying suitors, the place is infested with inbred murderous rednecks.

there’s plenty of nudity, a couple of impressive and gruesome deaths, and at least one suspenseful scene… but all of that happens in the first half. the entire film is filled with boring dialogue and uninspired villains and, unfortunately, the last half of the movie is really just the latter spouting the former. while we’re discussing villains… these truly are the weakest slasher villains in recent memory. one is a obviously modeled on r. lee ermey ‘s character from texas chainsaw, but with all the menace and creepiness replaced with ineptitude and smarminess. then there are the redneck twins which look far more like geico cave-men (see here) than anything from the hills have eyes or wrong turn. the film may be worth seeing just to witness the worst final one-liner i’ve heard in a while.

just based on the premise, this was the film I was most excited about. everything about this film seemed to say “here be a groovy movie about people digging up a creepy-crawlie that kills interesting characters in fun and exciting ways before the most interesting of the characters figure out a fun and exciting way to burn/impale-on-a-stick/blow-up the creepy-crawlie. you know, like in tremors.” some of those elements are present in this film, but it neglects the most important of the adjectives (“interesting,” “fun,” and “exciting”) and instead replaces them with “stereotypical,” “predictable” and “boring.” emmanuelle vaugier does a decent job as the alcoholic sheriff despite having little to work with from the script and tom (aka mr. friendly) from lost pops up a few times… but generally, the characters are horribly generic and unremarkable. instead of focusing on the characters, humor or tension, the movie spends far too much time explaining the ridiculous and unnecessary back story of the monster, insulting the intelligence of anyone who’s taken 9th grade biology. even without the incredibly dumb origin story, the monster is little more than a poor imitation of giger’s alien (complete with a face-hugger-type removable appendage that seems to serve no purpose), redone in sci-fi channel quality cgi. particularly memorable is a not-so-special effect where a character does a triple back-flip when thrown back from an exploding building. i tried really hard to enjoy this movie… but the movie was surprisingly adamant that i dislike it.

holy moly, that’s an impressive poster. with a promising cast (frank whaley, gabrielle anwar, traci lords) and a poster reminiscent of hostel and the girl next door… i was expecting a lot from this. unfortunately, the poster is horribly misleading as this ended up being my least favorite of this year’s 8films2die4.

a bunch of childhood friends are brought together when an old friend dies (a la last year’s very memorable the gravedancers). a treasure map leads them to an abandoned barn which contains a trunk with a dead child in it. the rest of the film plays out in an abandoned building… and absolutely nothing happens. when the scariest thing in your movie is gabrielle anwar sucking her thumb… you need to rethink your horror movie.

stylistically, this is one of the strongest entries. the cinematography is beautiful and beckons back to the incredibly creepy session 9. unfortunately that’s where the comparisons end. this is the most exposition heavy horror film i’ve ever seen… and that’s in a film where a text crawl at the opening explains the entire plot twist of the movie. seriously… why would you give away the only mystery in your movie in the opening 2 minutes? i seem to recall there being a similarly ill-advised voice-over in the opening of dark city… but even it didn’t ruin the film as completely as this does.

this film desperately wants to be a creepy, atmospheric ghost story that relies on story instead of gore… unfortunately, the ghost isn’t remotely scary and the story isn’t remotely interesting so there’s not much left but listening to unlikable characters whine in the dark. the nail in the coffin for me though was the ending. i have absolutely no idea what the flashback tacked on to the end means, and unlike the ending of mulberry street mentioned earlier… i have no real desire to find out.

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