Dark Reel – DTV Horror Film Review
Once the decision to review modern horror films is made, the critic must make an uneasy peace with certain issues of quality. We understand perfectly well that lower budget productions can’t be held to the same standard as their slick studio cousins (though judging from recent efforts like Prom Night and Mirrors, that might not be such a bad bargain) so a slightly different grading system is used. The use of talent that is more typically found selling autographs on the horror-con circuit is easily forgiven, along with the lack of sufficient camera coverage during a given scene, or even a script that needed one or two crucial extra rewrites, as long as it remembers the most important thing – to be scary. Conversely, the lack of actual scares can abruptly rip down the curtain of clemency and bear the critical fangs; patience runs out and we go for the groin.
Dark Reel is the newest release from North American Motion Pictures, a company that really wants me to know their name, as the review copy sent out has their company name burned into the screen for roughly 40% of the film’s egregiously overlong running time. The story begins with a black & white prolog that would appear to take place in the late ’40s or early ’50s (or the 1860s, if you go by the bartender’s mustache) where a glamorous young actress is picked up in a bar by a dashing studio executive with the promise of a screen test. Things quickly take a turn into Peeping Tom territory when the actress, Scarlett May, is butchered by the young man with the camera still rolling. We move to present day Los Angeles for the balance of the film and pick up out protagonist, Adam Waltz (Edward Furlong), who just won a bit part in a poverty row pirate picture produced by the egomaniacal Connor Pritchett (Lance Henriksen). Soon, an actress on the film is brutally killed (in a strikingly familiar way…) by a figure in a black trench coat and a grotesque mask, bringing the attention of two detectives (Tony Todd and Rena Riffel) to the set. When Adam thinks he sees the ghost of Scarlett May walk off the screen while watching the dailies, he begins to think that the murders are somehow related to the slaying of Scarlett all those years ago.
First, the good news – Dark Reel is one of the few horror titles we seen in the past few years that feature bloody murder set pieces without the (apparent) aid of CGI, something even Dario Argento’s latest can’t claim. Patient gorehounds will be rewarded with several scenes that are surprisingly graphic for a film carrying an R rating – that is, if the obscene 109min (!) running time doesn’t put their lights out first. There is quite a bit of humor as well, though it’s impossible to tell how much was in the script and how much was added during filming out of desperation to retain the audience’s attention. We see enough of Pritchett’s previous film, Gnome Killer, to wonder how farfetched the concept actually is, though the pirate film that the characters are making is more befitting a porn spoof than a genre programmer. Though even we don’t know quite what to make of the police representatives; Tony Todd’s wardrobe suggests that his character spends nights stealing from Goodwill kiosks, while his partner looks made up to be a ’90s variant of a Vargas girl and sports distracting tattoos that bring to mind a rock groupie rather than a detective. Other bits, like the Julian Sands-like leading man’s obsession with eating onions, die on the vine long before it becomes a heinously unfunny running gag.
We’re not sure what to make of Furlong, with his puffy, tired eyes and general disheveled air. He appears lost much of the time, with a hazy expression that makes him look like he’s constantly trying to adjust to unfamiliar surroundings. It’s an odd, flinchy performance that can be physically uncomfortable to watch. As always, Lance Henriksen has a blast with the screen time given him; he’s been at this game for more than 3 decades now and has learned well how to amuse himself while laboring on unworthy projects. We were pleasantly surprised to see the great character actor Tracey Walter turn up in a small role as a tabloid photographer.
The film is being released on Blu-Ray and DVD on March 10th, and is supposed to feature 2 commentary tracks, along with deleted scenes and a production featurette, though none were present on our review copy. It’s unknown what sort of mischief the studio thinks reviewers will get up to with a full retail copy of the finished product, but we certainly appreciate letting us see the 8min of trailers for upcoming North American Pictures releases!
DARK REEL (2008). Directed by Josh Eisenstadt. Written by Aaron Pope, story by Josh Eisenstadt. Cast: Lance Henriksen, Daniel Wisler, Edard Furlong, Tifany Shepis, Rena Riffel, Tate Hanyok, Alexandra Holden, Mercedes McNab. Brooke Lyons, Tracy Walter.