Room 205 – DVD Review

The Denmark-lensed Room 205is one of the more interesting entries in the initial wave of low budget, independent horror films from Ghost House Underground, a direct-to-video arm of Sam Raimi and Bob Tapert’s Ghost House Pictures. While the parent company has been enjoying a string of solid office hits thanks to J-horror remakes (The Grudge) and the clever positioning of poached Asian talent like the Pang Brothers in familiar, if somewhat dull product (The Messengers), Room 205 is a quiet, atmospheric ghost story that – mostly – eschews the trendier genre trappings of modern horror in favor of a measured, quiet tone that rewards an audience’s patience with some genuinely unsettling moments.

Student Katrine (Neel Ronholt) is having a rocky start to her term at an un-named Copenhagen university. While still grieving the death of her mother, she finds herself fighting for acceptance from the bitchy Sanne (Julie Olgaard) and pining for hunky Lukas (Jon Lange). But just as things begin to look up, Katrine’s sanity is threatened by macabre visions in her dorm – could the ghost of a girl who died in Sanne’s room be haunting her? It’s only when bodies start piling up that Katrine enlists the help of the quiet, sensitive Rolf (Mikkel Arendt) to help her find a way to send the rampaging poltergeist back where it came from.

The DVD box does Room 205 (or Kollegiet, in its native tongue) no favors by splashing “A fast-paced supernatural teen slasher” across the cover. While it may encourage a second video-store glance from the easily amused, it advertises a gory thrill-ride that is, thankfully, not delivered. Katrine is already haunted by the death of her mother, and her sensitive nature and wounded heart makes her a prime target for the animosity of Sanne, who turns the entire dorm against Katrine when she fails to react “properly” to a particularly cruel joke at a party. Moments like these allow Director Martin Barnewitz to focus on the more mundane horrors of dorm life early on while sprinkling in several ominous visual and aural hints to let us know that something more supernatural is coming.

Most people haven’t lived in a haunted Copenhagen dorm room, but it’s a safe bet that most of the audience for low-budget horror remembers what it’s like to be unpopular, and Barnewitz and star Ronholt make you feel every inch of Katerine’s isolation. Without giving away a rather grim development late in the film, the evil spirit in question is “trapped” within the mirrors of the dormitory, and the accidental shattering of one releases her into our world. Barnewitz has fun photographing the hazy reflection of Katerine in various objects (from a hallway security mirror to the hood of a car) and generates a nice sense of foreboding.

Fittingly, Room 205’s visual style owes much to the European tradition; from Polanski’s nerve-tingling distortions in Repulsionto the grainy, avant-garde “realism” of Barnewitz’s fellow countrymen in the Dogme 95 movement. The visual style combined with the measured pace gives the film an austerity that runs against the grain of most modern horror films, the vast majority of Ghost House Underground’s cannon in particular – judging at least from the trailers included on the disc.

While the second half contains a few genuinely unnerving moments – particularly Katerine’s return to a mysteriously deserted party and a well played bit involving a set of closing elevator doors – it also acquiesces to the gore hound crowd with a few decidedly out-of-place bursts of violence that run against the grain of the restraint in the show’s first half. We sense that it was the likely the realities of the global film market rather than artistic expression that necessitated their inclusion. And in an inferior film it wouldn’t seem so out of place to have college students behave more like petulant tweenies – a bad fit for a supporting cast that looks a good 10 years too old to be living in a dorm. It’s also worth noting that many may feel the pacing to be slack, particularly in the first half (I don’t know if European pacing is a term in common usage, but as it’s a European film, it would seem to be appropriate); however, director Barnewitz uses the time wisely, allowing his characters to breathe and develop a screen-life of their own.

But it’s Neel Ronholt’s performance that really boosts this film far above its peer group. Miss Ronholt, an instantly endearing screen presence resembling a combination of Misty Mundae and Lynn Lowry, appears in nearly every scene and effectively carries the film on her shoulders. She possesses an amazingly demure sexuality while also expressing genuine intelligence and is definitely a name to watch for.

Room 205 appears on DVD courtesy of Lionsgate, along with the rest of the Ghost House Underground collection. It appears to be an accurate reproduction of the original photography, in an enhanced 2:35×1 transfer. You’ll also have the choice to watch the film with its original Danish language (with English subtitles) soundtrack or an English dub. We sampled the dub track but found it too distracting, particularly during the more dialog-driven first half (Rolf’s voice in particular sounds very Troy McClure-ish, while the women have that shrill quality present in many giallo dubs of the 70s). Ghost House has included a commentary track featuring director Martin Barnewitz and Cinefantastique’s own Steve Biodrowski. It makes for a pleasant, relaxed chat; Barnewitz’s English is fluent, and seems genuinely humbled by Biodrowski’s allusions to major horror pictures past. Also present are trailers for a good sized chunk of Ghost House Underground’s slate, showcasing several (the title of Last House in the Woods alone seems to violate about a dozen copyrights) that made us appreciate how special Room 205 is.

Phase IV (1975) on DVD

In an isolated area of the American southwest desert, a small research station has been quickly set up to study some disturbing trends among the ant population. Ants of different species have not only stopped fighting against each other, they have begun to communicate and work together – building geometric ‘ant skyscrapers’ and driving out the human population British biologist Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) and “numbers man” James Lesko (Michael Murphy) soon find themselves in a battle of wills with the insects, with each side striking at the other until it becomes clear that science is going to be no match for the ants’ newly supercharged brains.

Downbeat Sci-Fi was all the rage when PHASVE IV was released, coming on the heels of apocalyptic downers like SOYLENT GREEN, SILENT RUNNING, and THE OMEGA MAN. It seems audiences held little hope of a future without hunger, rampant overpopulation, and ecological catastrophe on a global scale. But PHASVE IV’s release also dovetails nicely with the ‘nature run amok’ movement that was just getting started at a lower pedigree level with FROGS, but would soon hit its stride with GRIZZLY, THE SWARM, and FOOD OF THE GODS.
PHASVE IV is typically (and rightly) set apart from the pack, as it’s a far more thought provoking take on an often exploitative subject. For a brief period in the late ’60s and early ’70s, horror films with artistic aspirations were plentiful and roamed freely across the nation. Acclaimed filmmaker Roman Polanski took Ira Levin’s pot boiler about modern day Devil worshipers and crafted ROSEMARY’S BABY – turning it into both a critical and box office sensation. William Friedkin, who was able to make any film he wanted after the FRENCH CONNECTION Oscar sweep, chose William Peter Blatty’s tale of possession and redemption, THE EXORCIST, scoring another batch of nominations and becoming one of the top grossing films of all time. The trickledown effect of these behemoths was considerable, and many other filmmakers had a shot at getting edgier and more difficult material financed as long as there was some marketable horror content.

It’s no surprise that Bass’ visuals are stunning; Bass was one of the more highly coveted graphic designers, and his work can easily be found in design museums all over the world, or in your own home (Quaker Oates and Minolta are just two of his more famous corporate logos). From the ’50s up through the early ’90s, renowned commercial designer Saul Bass was steadily employed by many filmmakers from Otto Preminger right up to Martin Scorsese to design title sequences and promotional artwork. But Bass also worked with several famously demanding directors like John Frankenheimer and Alfred Hitchcock on narrative content as well; Bass assisted with the photography and editing of numerous sequences. But Bass’ command of narrative caught many by surprise – the palpable feeling of both fear and fascination on the part of the scientists is presented credibly and realistically.
But it also must be said that the film could not exist without the absolutely stunning macro-photography by Ken Middleham, who had done similarly breathtaking work 3 years earlier on THE HELLSTROM CHRONICLE – a fictional documentary about the feasibility of an insect takeover of the world. The information that Bass and Middleham are able to impart is truly impressive; lengthy silent takes show the workings of the ant world, including a multi-species war council that ought to be the envy of every nature show in existence, and one superbly detailed sequence showing how the ants move a chunk of the poison that was used to attack them down to their Queen in order to render future generations immune.
Events (and their conclusions) are left wonderfully vague; so much so, that when we learn through Murphy’s voiceover that a cosmic event has triggered the ant behavior, it almost plays as the result of a studio note asking that certain things be more clearly spelled out. Giving the audience too much information – particularly in this genre – almost never works. We don’t need the scientists to tell us what the ants are doing because thanks to Middleham’s camerawork and Bass’ guidance, we always know what we need to. It’s an almost forgotten fact that in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD George Romero laid the problem at the door of a passing meteorite. In the ensuing years, realizing that ambiguity can work for you, Romero dropped any further reference to it, removing a layer of security and gaining a layer of dread in the process.
With the ants soaking up much of the film’s spotlight, there’s not much left for Davenport and Murphy, but both acquit themselves well. Murphy, a Robert Altman stock player who also had a nice genre turn in 1970’s COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE, makes an acceptably egg-headed young hero; his Lesko is a numbers cruncher who has no idea what he’s up against until it’s too late, and Murphy applies just the right layer of naiveté while not letting the audience forget that he’s supposed to be a brilliant scientist.
Nigel Davenport is one of many British actors of his generation whose name doesn’t come easily for the average movie-goer (he places somewhere between James Mason and Barry Foster on the recognizability scale) but whose presence elevates even the most mundane programmer (he’s by far the most interesting thing on screen in the 1977 remake of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU). Davenport’s character has the more interesting arc of the two leads, as we watch him move believably from scientific detachment to childish anger as he nearly destroys the lab attempting to capture a single ant.
I admit to smelling a rat when Lynne Fredrick (Davenport’s co-star 4 years earlier in Cornel Wilde’s end-of-civilization tale, NO BLADE OF GRASS, which is still MIA on DVD) arrives at the research station, the only surviving member of a family driven off their land and killed by the ants. You could almost see the memo from a cigar chomping Paramount executive to “get a cute broad in there”, and though her flirtation with Murphy threatens to slow the proceedings to a crawl, Bass has other plans, and uses their budding romance as a foundation for a nicely disturbing finale.


PHASVE IV is being released on DVD (finally!) by Legend Films as part of their distribution deal with Paramount – a studio that has been famously negligent in regards to releasing their hundreds of catalog titles. The last few months have been a genre enthusiast’s dream come true, as titles that we had given up hope of ever seeing appear on disc began showing up, including THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, THE SKULL, even THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY!
PHASVE IV is definitely one of the more eagerly awaited titles, so it’s a shame that Legend has decided to make it a Best Buy exclusive. Now, they’re not the first to do it (Universal frustrated many fans by releasing two box sets of classic Horror and Sci-Fi this way), but a glance at any discussion board would reveal nothing but frustration at attempting to purchase one of these exclusives: you can never find them on Best Buy’s website; they are rarely shelved; and when asked, employees never seem to have heard of them. The entire process seems geared to create an eBay black market.
If you can find it, you’ll be pleased by a strong, anamorphic transfer in a presumably accurate 1.78×1 ratio. The colors are strong for a nearly 35 year old film (especially one shot on a low budget) and the brief signs of age shouldn’t discourage anyone. As with the rest of the Paramount titles being released by Legend, there are no extras – and I mean none, the menu options are ‘Play’ and ‘Chapters’ – which is a shame. Bass passed away over a decade ago, but presumably his estate still has material on the production (Bass’ only theatrical feature as a director) and it would be up to Paramount to get them, as Legend can only release what Paramount gives them.
Rumors of a longer cut persist (apparently, a cut that ran over 90min was released theatrically, only to be pulled back and re-edited to its current 84 minute running time) and for those interested in investigating the missing material, the film’s theatrical trailer contained some of the excised elements, and can be found on Synapse’s terrific trailer collection, 42nd Street Forever Vol 3.

The Island (1980) on DVD

Cover art for the German Region 2 DVD release of THE ISLAND, under the title FREIBEUTER DES TODES

Peter Benchley was working on quite an impressive streak in 1980. Jaws and The Deep, published respectively in 1974 and 1976, became blockbusters of the literary world – but it was their film adaptations (each released in the year following publication) that made Benchley’s name into a household word and catapulted him into the rarefied air of the Crichtons and Ludlums. His hugely anticipated follow-up, 1979’s The Island, crossed Benchley’s familiar ‘seafaring adventure’ template with a bit of fashionable Bermuda Triangle myth-making. Movie rights were a foregone conclusion, and in keeping with the single year, page to screen transition time of his previous books, the film version arrived in 1980.

Journalist Blair Maynard (Michael Caine) travels to an isolated area of the Caribbean with his young son Justin (Jeffrey Frank) to investigate the “missing boat” phenomenon of the Bermuda Triangle. After renting a fishing boat from sodden Brit ex-pat Mr. Windsor (Frank Middlemass), Maynard and his son are captured by a group of pirates. For 300 years, the pirates have been wreaking havoc on the Caribbean, stealing cargo and killing the crews of other ships. Blair is kept alive to perform “husbandly duties” for the wife of the man he killed in the initial attack, while Justin is selected by the pirate leader, Nau (David Warner) to be his son – and continue the bloodline for another 3 centuries.
The biggest problem with THE ISLAND is, ironically, that it doesn’t take liberties with the source material. Fans of the Spielberg film are amazed to pick up the novel Jaws and find a maze of sub-plots and character developments that never made it to the screen (including appearances by the Mafia and an affair between Matt Hooper and Brody’s wife!) Spielberg wisely jettisoned most of Benchley’s extraneous plot machinations and stuck to the core story. It’s also a safe bet that Peter Yates took a rather jaundiced view of The Deep’swarmed-over tale of leery smugglers, and decided not to take the affair very seriously and just film the vacation. Left intact, Benchley’s plots could congeal into a pulpy mess, a problem that ISLAND-director Michael Ritchie exacerbated with his affection for wild tonal shifts. Ritchie showed early promise with some terrific early work in THE CANDIDATE (handling some difficult satirical elements quite well) and the absolutely bonkers PRIME CUT (both 1972), an absurdist gangster shoot-‘em-up starring Lee Marvin and featuring Gene Hackman as a sex slave-running mobster who grinds the bodies of his victims into sausage. Even Ritchie’s THE BAD NEWS BEARS – a purported family comedy – features children drinking and cursing in what probably seems shockingly natural and non-moralistic to audiences today. But Ritchie’s touch here makes the film that much harder to categorize; the pirate attacks are quite vicious, with one moment of outrageous gore during the opening scene that would be more at home in CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. These scenes can clash uncomfortably with the Boy’s Own adventure scenario that develops after Maynard and his son are taken prisoner by the pirates.
The plot turns on the notion that the pirate leader Nau would be able to turn Justin against his father in the space of what seems like only a few days. Caine’s character may be an absentee father, but it strains credibility to accept the Jim Jones-style brainwashing of Justin. But by this point you’re either onboard for the trip or sitting back on the dock laughing your pirate ass off, anyway. Casting strong British actors like Warner and Middlemass help – Warner in particular has an amazing ability to preserve his dignity amidst projects far more dubious than this. But it’s Caine’s shoulders that the film rests on.
1980 was an interesting time in the career of Michael Caine; his matinee idol days behind him, Caine may well have suffered some sort of middle-age breakdown in the late 70s and began leveraging his celebrity with seemingly dozens of ‘for the paycheck’ jobs (would you like to start with BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and THE SWARM and work forward, or with MR. DESTINY and JAWS: THE REVENGE and work back?) Unlike most actors, who phone in it when working on material that they deem beneath them, Caine went overboard in the opposite direction and chewed the scenery until there was nothing left but the sprocket holes. Now, THE ISLAND doesn’t present the opportunities for over-indulgence that DRESSED TO KILL does, and his presence helps ground the story in a measure of believability (though there are moments, like when he’s forced to hold up a piece of fruit for a target practice session, where you can almost see him thinking about the house he’s going to buy with his salary). It’s a solid performance that gets is unfairly maligned because of where it falls on his résumé.
If you say that you enjoyed this film, you’d better be prepared with a good reason. Look in any edition of those Leonard Maltin movie guides and you’ll rarely see this film rate more than 1½ stars, and I can guarantee you that the interns Maltin has chained up in the basement haven’t ever seen a frame of it. It’s a very handsome production that gets tremendous value out if its Caribbean locations. The cast is also peppered with familiar faces adding some welcome grace notes; Zakes Mokae (THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW) and Brad Sullivan (unforgettable as the filthy Mo Wanchuk in SLAP SHOT) turn up early on and have a fun scene together, and look for the familiar cherubic face of Dudley Sutton (THE DEVILS) among the pirates. Ritchie also throws in some nice touches as well; a Holiday Inn towel is kept as precious booty, while valuable cocaine is carelessly strewn on the floor giving a nice sketch of Pirate priorities without resorting to those awful “What has your modern world to offer us?” speeches.
Assessing the true worth of THE ISLAND has been impossible, as the film hasn’t been seen in its original Panavision ratio since its theatrical engagement. Universal owns the film and has shown no interest in a US DVD release, but for those with all-region/PAL capable players Koch has released a beautiful, 16×9 enhanced edition in Germany that should earn the film a few more fans. The disc features English and German audio tracks, but unlike some European releases, the German subtitles are not forced when the English audio is selected. The extras consist of the German trailer (under the title Freibeuter Des Todes) and – one of the more interesting items we’ve seen in a while – the 8mm filmstrip version! We vividly remember the ads for these in the back of Fangoria, back in the 70s and early 80s and it’s fascinating to finally see one (particularly for the choices made in editing – the 8mm versions never ran over a half hour).
THE ISLAND (1980). Directed by Michael Ritchie. Screenplay by Peter Benchley, based on his novel. Cast: Michael Caine, David Warner, Angela Punch McGregor, Frank Middlemass, Don Henderson, Dudley Sutton, Colin Jeavons, Zakes Mokae.

ZPG (1971) on DVD

ZPG (or Zero Population Growth) arrived as part of a wave of eco-minded Sci-Fi thrillers that predicted dire circumstances for mankind’s not too distant future. Close in tone to Douglas Trumbull’s SILENT RUNNING (featuring Bruce Dern’s mutinous seizure of a massive spaceship containing some of Earth’s last bits of greenery) but featuring a future more along the lines of SOYLENT GREEN, ZPG is a nearly joyless effort – a dour lecture on the ills of over-population that is too bloated with self importance to even qualify as camp.
ZPG is set in a city permanently encased in a thick fog of pollution (we’re told neither where nor when the story takes place, done either to save money on production design or to make the viewer feel like this could happen Tomorrow and it could be Anywhere).  In a desperate move to counter over-population, the President decrees a 30-year ban on childbirth. Children born prior to the ban are imprinted with an infrared “BE” (Before Edict) on their forehead, whereas childbirth after the edict results in the offending family being encased in a suffocation dome, where they spend the last hours of their lives thinking about their “crime against humanity.”
At a museum of the 20th Century where lucky citizens (“I’ve waited 3 years to get in!”) get to see exhibits of extinct animals – cats, mostly – and synthetic fauna. Russ and Carol McNeil (Oliver Reed and Geraldine Chaplin, respectively) work as actors in an exhibit of a typical 20th Century home featuring such decadences as eating and drinking real food instead of paste, and swapping partners with another couple, the Bordens (Steve McQueen pal Don Gordon and THE WICKER MAN’s Diane Cilento). Once Carol decides to break the law and have a baby, they must not only avoid the prying eyes of the Big Brother-like government, but also the growing jealously of their own friends, whose initial offer to help conceal the baby leads quickly to trouble.
Today, SOYLENT GREEN is typically the target of derision, with most reviewers unable to get past the out-sized Charlton Heston performance or the famous Rod Serling-style twist at the end. But director Richard Fleischer’s vision of a New York choked by pollution and overcrowded to the point where most people are forced to sleep in the stairwells of buildings is a far more convincing vision of the future than ZPG. A British production filmed in Denmark, the film is almost entirely set-bound featuring art direction designed to reflect a bleak, oppressive future. As a result, ZPG’s world feels like being lost in a parking garage for 90 minutes. We would normally applaud this commitment to reality, but the film’s other “future” details are sloppy: all the museum exhibits seem to date from exactly the same year as the picture was filmed (“See ___ from 1971!”), and the ridiculous medallions that everyone wears over their grey jumpsuits seem to exist only because some costume designer thought they were groovy. Imagine Andrei Tarkovsky directing a Dr. Who episode and you’re halfway home.
It will be interesting to see how recent “near future” films like MINORITY REPORT and THE ISLAND pan out in coming decades. It seems that films of ZPG’s vintage got knocked back two steps for each one taken in the direction of rendering mankind’s future on film. Is anything more quintessentially ’70s than the ‘digital’ font used for the numbers on the back of the jerseys in ROLLERBALL? Or the silly sundresses and jumpsuits of LOGAN’S RUN? Watching ZPG, I couldn’t help but think how much better the film would work as a Brechtian experiment, featuring chalk outlines on a studio floor. Where’s Lars Von Trier when you really need him?!?
The actors were clearly directed to their flat line readings and emotionless performances – an all too trite way of showing life under an oppressive regime. It’s always interesting to see Oliver Reed playing it straight; too often he was cast to reputation and would give the producers exactly what they asked for, but here he’s subdued to the point of catatonia. Chaplin, too, is always interesting to watch; she’s an unconventional beauty who always seems on the verge of crying. Unfortunately, not only do we never believe that the couple has a chance of raising a baby unnoticed by the government; we never believe that they believe it. If the audience thinks that it’s a death wish from the start, the movie isn’t working.
There are several moments that do manage to work, which makes it all the more frustrating when director Michael Campus fails to follow up on them. When we first meet the McNeils, they are waiting in a long line to receive the official replacement for a child, a creepy animatronic toddler that is programmed to react to the voice of the parents. Carol reacts in horror (quite rightly) and runs out of the building. The movie builds an interesting subplot around how psychiatrists, presumably under government order, counsels these new “mothers” and encourages them to accept their new plastic babies as real (“see how he needs you…”). It’s an interesting idea, and handled well – better in fact than Spielberg would with a similar issue in A.I. And it’s always nice to see Don Gordon get a gig where he’s not attached to McQueen’s hip, as in TOWERING INFERNO, BULLITt and PAPILLION. He’s an interesting actor.
ZPG is part of a large number of Paramount titles licensed to Legend Films ( for DVD release. Paramount has long been on the naughty list for hanging on to catalogue titles and keeping them off the market, so this is a very welcome turn. The first batch contains a few near-classics, the Amicus production of THE SKULL (finally in its scope ratio!), and the little seen POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY, alongside several “not nearly as good as you remembered from mid ’80s HBO” titles like STUDENT BODIES and JEKYLL & HYDE TOGETHER AGAIN. This release saves ZPG from almost total obscurity; it’s only previous home video incarnation was as a budget VHS edition (recorded in the space-saving EP mode) that didn’t give the film a chance. The anamorphic image falls somewhere between 1:85 and 1.78, which looks right most of the time. Occasionally the frame seems a smidge tight, and it’s possible that it was originally shot, like many European films of the time, in the 1.66 ratio, but the difference is negligible. The colors are on the murky side (if I were really trying to sell this to you, I’d call it an “industrial color scheme”) but Legend was stuck with whatever film elements that Paramount handed them. But in general, the image is solid, and certainly reflects the intent of the filmmakers.
While ZPG may not have been the best lead-off title, it bodes well for a lineup of eclectic titles in the near future. It’s in this spirit that I mention that MANDINGO is currently available on their site. Keep ‘em coming, Legend!
ZPG (“Zero Populatino Growth,” 1971). Directed by Michael Campus. Written by Frank De Felitta and max Ehrlick. Cast: Russ McNeil, Geraldine Chaplin, Don Gordon, Diane Cilento, Eugene Blau.
CORRECTION: This article was originally posted with incorrect attribution. It now correctly reads “Posted by Drew Fitzpatrick.”

Texas Frightmare Weekend: "Night of the Living Dead" 40th Anniversary Screening

40th Anniversary Screening of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (Photo copyright 2008 by Drew Fitzpatrick)Grapevine, Texas is one of numerous communities that surround the gargantuan Dallas/Ft Worth International Airport. They exist in a symbiotic relationship; the airport brings thousands of short-stay passengers into the area each day, and the communities provide hotels, restaurants, and a preponderance of the writ-large shopping experience that one would expect from Texas. While there isn’t much in the way of specific character to the area (a trait that large airports rarely inspire), sometimes people bring their own – and that’s precisely what happened at the Texas Frightmare Weekend. The large scale horror convention is a relatively recent phenomenon, gaining steadily in popularity in larger cities on the East and West coast for the last few decades. And while in terms of size and attendance, the TFW is still the little brother to the Chiller and Fangoria cons – it’s also free of many of their pitfalls.
The TFW kicked off in earnest on Thursday, Feb 21st with a 40th anniversary screening of a film that, for many people, represents ground zero for the modern horror film – NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Presented in conjunction with AFI Dallasat the Inwood theater; the TFW gathered much of the original cast together, including Judith O’Dea (Barbara), Russ Streiner (Johnny), Bill Hinzman, (1st graveyard zombie), George Kosana (the Sheriff, whose line “They’re dead, there…all messed up” ignited a deafening audience reaction), Kyra Schon (Karen), co-writer John Russo, and, of course, George A Romero. Amazingly, Marilyn Eastman (Helen), unable to attend the screening after injuring her ribs in a bad fall, actually made the rest of the convention from a wheelchair!
The Inwood has been part of the Landmark Theaters chain since 1988, and along with sister theater, the Magnolia, provide Dallas with an enviable art-house experience. Though the strip mall that houses it will set few hearts aflutter, once under the gleaming marquee you feel like whoever runs the joint is there for the same reason you are. Remaining non-believers (and sober correspondents) should be set right by the Inwood Lounge located in the theater lobby. Why more theaters don’t follow this example is puzzling – any seat that isn’t spinning is a good one.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has been brining in American pop-culture for 4 decades; few horror film have soaked up as much allegorical encumbrance, and fewer still are able to bear up under the scrutiny. Romero has never said that the casting of African-American Duane Jones was anything other than a case of ‘right man, right part’, but color blind casting was a rare bird in 1968, and even popular stars like Sidney Poitier rarely found roles where he was free from embodying the noble suffering of his race at every turn. After all, a black actor in a leading role in a motion picture had to mean something, right? And what of the zombies themselves? What dark aspect of our society does the lurching army of the undead represent? The redneck zombie-hunting parties? (well, that one isn’t too hard…)
NIGHT was made in 1968, unquestionably one of the more turbulent years in our history. With an unpopular war raging abroad, assassinations taking the lives of popular, progressive leaders, and rampant student protests tearing up both college campuses and city streets – could it really be called just a horror film? Thankfully, there is no single answer; NIGHT is teeming with political meaning – all you have to do is lightly scratch the surface. One could argue that the ultimate fate of Duane Jones’ character speaks far more eloquently on the (then) current state of race relations than other, more meaningful films (GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER, long considered the ne plus ultra of late ’60s liberal film-making, now plays painfully stilted).
But most importantly, NIGHT is still a gangbusters horror film. The B&W cinematography perfectly captures the textures of a nightmare – compare this to the dreamy, albeit rambling tone of CARNIVAL OF SOULS, a film we have yet to remain awake through a complete run of (current record – 40min!). And unlike the vast majority of films in the genre, the acting is uniformly good. Low budget horror films are much like life rafts in a storm; all it takes is for one performer – lead or supporting – whose reach exceeds their grasp and everyone goes into the drink. Duane Jones (whose CV prior to NIGHT is non-existent) in particular provides immeasurable gravitas to a film that rarely stops to provide its characters with back story or motivation.
The 40th Anniversary print that is currently making the rounds looks little better than one of Romero’s re-animated corpses; many fans of the film are still surprised to learn that NIGHT was indeed shot on 35mm film. After the Walter Reade Organization filed to copyright the film (an error which likely cost them far more in revenue over the years than Romero) it fell into the public domain. Since the dawn of the home video age in the early 80s, bargain bins around the world have been filled with inferior copies of the film, as there was no need to pay royalties. It wasn’t until 1995, when Elite Entertainment undertook a painstaking restoration of the film for a laserdisc release, that an acceptable edition of the film made it into the hands of the public – and what they produced was nothing short of a revelation. Nearly 3 decades of neglect was wiped away, allowing fans who hadn’t even been born in 1968 the chance to see the film as originally intended.
This restoration, however, was of the video master only; restoring a 35mm print is another (considerably more expensive) matter entirely. The contrast of the AFI print was poor, and much fine detail has been lost to time. The soundtrack pops and sizzles like a burning breakfast, and there are enough frame dropouts to constitute a second feature – and none of it mattered one blessed bit. While some films have trouble surviving a sub-par presentation, NIGHT almost seems to thrive on it; the flickering, unstable image plays like an extended newsreel clip of some narrowly avoided apocalyptic event. Romero’s future installments to his zombie oeuvre were far slicker (and in the case of 1978’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, arguably better) but none pack NIGHT’s raw, rough punch. The only demonstrable glitch was the in the projection: NIGHT was photographed in the Academy Ratio of 1.37 and has been correctly presented ‘flat’ (without letterboxing bars) on all home video releases. For some reason, the projectionist chose to frame the film for 1.85 and cut off significant portions of the top and bottom of the screen. I didn’t hear anyone else mention it, but anyone familiar with the film must have noticed the cramped compositions forced onto it. Romero, who has probably seen the film plenty of times, left before the screening began – but it was strange (and embarrassing) for this to happen under the auspices of the AFI.
George Romero answers questions at the screening (photo copyright 2008 by Drew Fitzpatrick)Romero and his cast took the stage for a Q&A that was rather surprisingly hosted by fellow Frightmare guest Malcolm McDowell (McDowell was certainly game, but it was obvious that he had never seen the film before and was fulfilling pre-arranged convention duties). They discussed their company’s humble beginnings in Pittsburgh, the initial hostile reaction to the film – and a story I’ve not heard before: while driving to NYC with Russ Streiner to meet with the Walter Reade people, the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination broke on the radio. Romero sheepishly confessed that now they might “really have something” with the casting of Jones. It was a great evening, and a wonderful kickoff to the weekend.

Overlooked by Oscar: Zodiac

EDITOR’S NOTE: Our next contributor chimes in with his pick for the most egregiously overlooked film of the year. It’s not exactly horror, but like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, ZODIAC is dark and disturbing enough to trump any and all conventional horror films. 

By Andrew Fitzpatrick of the Blood-Spattered Scribe

Though only a serial killer film if you believe the Paramount marketing staff, ZODIAC has at least enough of one foot in the house to qualify as horror. It is also the best film of 2007. It could have been its March 3rd release date that saw it shut-out of the Oscars (because we all know that the best films don’t come out until September, right?) or the fact that, aside from a few welcome comic flourishes from Robert Downey Jr., none of the performances carry the stench of a desperate award grab that plague would-be worthy films like ATONEMENT. From the vintage studio logos that open the film to the canny use of one of the most sinister pop songs ever recorded at its conclusion, ZODIAC confounds the expectations that Fincher himself established with SE7EN over a decade ago.

Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo in the dark and disturbing ZODIAC

Anyone who grew up in the 70’s knows how well the decade’s details were nailed, but what surprised many was how restrained Fincher was in his storytelling. The killings, though graphically depicted and harrowing to watch, were front-loaded in the beginning of the film; informing the audience of how violent the crimes were without wallowing in their excesses in the way that nearly all other serial killer films that followed in SE7EN’s wake have done. Fincher crafts a story built around not catching a killer; we feel the frustrations of Inspector Toschi (Mark Ruffalo, whose nuanced, low key performance is a stunner), for whom the Zodiac represented professional disgrace, and cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), for whom the case became an obsession that became increasingly difficult to explain.
Check out the complete article here.

Cat People (1982) on HD-DVD

With Universal likely to be the last oar-rower on the HD-DVD lifeboat, their choice of releases on the format becomes that much more interesting. Other than Warner Bros, who recently abandoned ship in favor of the greener pastures of Blu-ray exclusivity, Universal was the only studio keeping up a steady stream of catalog title releases. Many fondly remembered films from the ’80s: THE THING, DUNE, and even THE LAST STARFIGHTER have found their way onto HD-DVD, leaving one to wonder just exactly what kind of wonderful madman was put in charge of title selection. But even with a track record as eclectic as this, the arrival of 1982’s CAT PEOPLE left many dumbfounded. Certainly there had to be better candidates than this? Even keeping to that same era and studio, CONAN THE BARBARIAN would have had much stronger sales, and FLASH GORDON (just re-released on DVD) would have been better suited to HD, with its eye candy sets and costumes. But, wishing and $2 will get you on the subway – CAT PEOPLE is what we were given, so CAT PEOPLE is what we’re going to talk about. But first, back to 1942.
RKO Pictures, looking for a profitable line of low budget horror pictures, imports Val Lewton from MGM; giving him a good deal of autonomy so long as his projects were kept short (double bills, please!) and made cheap (under $150,000, far less than Universal was laying out per-picture in the studio’s classic monster heyday). CAT PEOPLE , directed by Jacques Tourneur, would be Lewton’s first RKO production. The story centers on Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon, forming the notion of “mysterious European beauty” for decades to come) born in Serbia but fully ‘Americanized’ and living in NYC. While visiting a zoo she meets Oliver Reed (it would take several decades before the notion of an average American named Oliver Reed would be funny), they fall in love and marry in very short order. Wedded bliss is short lived, however, because Irena believes herself to be descended from a race of people who transform into leopards during moments of passion. As Oliver’s frustration builds, he begins to be attracted to co-worker Alice, and Irena finds that lust isn’t the only emotion that triggers her curse. The film went on to be a box office smash – the first in a series of successful pictures made by Lewton at RKO that handled horror in a similarly restrained fashion.
Swish pan to four decades later; Universal Studios, working with RKO Pictures (essentially a letterhead incarnation of the original studio that held the rights to most titles in the RKO library) prepares a remake, and attracts the attention of Paul Schrader. The result is a veritable walking tour of what was both right and wrong with modern horror – and the wisdom of “updating” classic films.

This time out, we join young Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski), traveling to New Orleans to live with her brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell, with Manson lamps set on ‘high beam’). Sparks fly when she meets Oliver Yates (John Heard), a curator at the New Orleans zoo. Matters are complicated when Paul informs his sister that consummating her relationship with Oliver will be difficult because in their family, the throws of passion stirs something ancient in their blood that turns them into a leopard, savagely killing the human mate – but sex with him will work out just fine, thanks. Paul, you see, has been building up quite a body count while waiting for his sister to fulfill his needs, and after the mauling of a prostitute (cult favorite Lynn Lowry, whose own facial features are more cat-like than either co-star) Paul, still in leopard form, is captured by Oliver and taken to the zoo. After seeing Irena and Oliver together (and savagely mauling Ed Begley Jr.) Paul changes back into human form and escapes, leaving Irena to deal with a trail of leopard maulings that lead right to her doorstep and a growing attraction to Oliver that may well result in his death – and very, very messy sheets.
It’s interesting that at a time when he could have probably gotten almost any movie made that Paul Schrader would have chosen CAT PEOPLE. A blazing hot screenwriter after TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL, and a coveted director after AMERICAN GIGOLO became a critical hit, one can’t help but wonder at the selection. In the disc’s fabulously frank commentary track – one of the new disc’s major pluses – Schrader admits that he was looking for ‘hired gun’ work that he didn’t have a strong personal attachment to. CAT PEOPLE would certainly have fit the bill; that is until he fell hard for star Kinski during filming. Schrader discusses his affair with Kinski and what we presume to be an acrimonious break-up (according to Schrader, just prior to release she appealed to a Universal executive for her nude scenes to be removed, claiming she felt manipulated).
Schrader’s obsession with his star did produce some of the most flattering photography of a single actress in recent memory, and for the film’s first half, that’s almost enough to sustain interest. But through an unexplained plot contrivance, Irena is taken by brother Paul on a tour of their ancestors wind swept, cyan-toned ancient world – glimpsed in the film’s opening scene – where we watch leopards (or panthers, anyway they’re big and scary looking) mate with young women brought to them as human sacrifices by villagers. This occurs nearly at the halfway mark, and the picture never recovers from it.
Nastassja Kinski in cat transformation makeupWhile nobody expected the film to adhere to the original’s sense of inference and suggestion over explicit depictions of violence or sexuality, it was turning the abstract concept of a race of inbred cat people into a physiological reality that would be the film’s true undoing. In 1982, advances in the art of practical make-up effects were making celebrities out of Rick Baker and Tom Savini, and it was becoming routine in films like AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, THE HOWLING and THE THING for the show to come to a complete stop in order to show off the latest in latex moldings and inflatable bladders. When the lovely Ms. Kinski is subjected to these make-up efforts, the heretofore suspended disbelief comes crashing down like a bag of cat litter, and the show is steered from erotic thriller to monster movie – a genre in which Schrader shows little proclivity (cough – EXORCIST prequel – cough).
Even Schrader admits that the autopsy scene of leopard-Paul, where the cat is cut open to reveal an intact human hand, doesn’t work. It’s worse than that; it’s laughable, and that’s something genre films can’t afford.
And once the 1942 figurative became 1982 literal, all that’s left is to see how hard the filmmakers intend to push the ‘R’ rating. Though screenwriting credit goes to Alan Ormsby, the kinky sexuality has Schrader written all over it. Bondage, incest, and even zoophilia abound, but without the religious or psychological underpinnings of Schrader’s better work. And though the gore content probably isn’t enough to shock an audience today, the amount of nudity on display is rather startling. With her gamine haircut and lithe body, Ms. Kinski is pure joy to behold on-screen – and behold her you will, for several extended sessions of nude bayou wandering (if Ms. Kinski had been successful in having her nude scenes removed, the film could have been reclassified as a short subject).
As an embodiment of feline eroticism, Kinski’s performance is quite good; but she simply can’t pull off Irena’s transformation from victim to stalker, particularly in a restaging of the original’s famous indoor pool scene. Beyond giving Annette O’Toole her own bit of obligatory nudity – and if it seems as though I’m complaining, remember please that I have my critic hat on – it reminds us how easily little Simone Simon could convey menace and mystery. And since we’re already in the gutter, it may be worth noting that poor Lynn Lowry’s bra snap-away surely ranks among the most gratuitous nude shots of the decade – and that’s a huge statement.
Universal’s HD-DVD is a direct port of their 2002 DVD: the special features are identical, and the same HD master was used. The HD-DVD has also been a bit controversial in terms of image quality. Though the image does feature some unfortunate edge enhancement (a process used by studios to give the image an artificially sharper look), I found the image more than acceptable – this presentation is the first time that the desert-set sacrificial scenes, with their heavy use of a red/cyan palette, have actually looked halfway decent on home video.

The desert-set fantasy-flashback scenes finally look good on HD-DVD 

As previously mentioned, the showpiece extra is the feature length commentary by Schrader. It’s an amazingly honest track, with Schrader giving the credit for the film’s visual bravura to the amazing sets and design work of Bertolucci-collaborator Fernando Scarfiotti, credited as “visual consultant” due to union regulations. Other supplements include an equally candid video interview with Schrader filmed for the 2002 release which dovetails nicely with a shot-on-set interview filmed during production where Schrader comes off as an insufferable intellectual. Also on hand is a video interview with Robert Wise on the production of the 1942 version, which has little to do with the subject at hand, but is interesting nonetheless; a featurette on Tom Burman’s make-up EFX; a reel of the gorgeous matte paintings; production photos, and a trailer that looks its age.
REVIEW FLASHBACK: Read Cinefantastique’s original review of CAT PEOPLE by Kyle Counts.

Wolfman fetches director Johnston

Aint It Cool News is reporting that Joe Johnston was selected by Universal to direct their re-make/re-launch/re-whatever of THE WOLF MAN, one of their most revered horror properties from their golden age. The curious exit of Mark Romanek (ONE HOUR PHOTO) just weeks before filming left a vacuum that had everyone from fanboy wetdreams John Landis and Joe Dante, to Brits like Martin Campbell (CASINO ROYALE) and Neil Marshall (THE DESCENT), to shits like Brett Ratner (RUSH HOUR, X3). From this group, Joe Johnson seemed like a real longshot; his track record features a lot of EFX heavy blockbusters like JUMANJI, HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS, and JURASSIC PARK 3 that make him the studio-friendly choice. No auteur tantrums, no doing 50 takes because a shot isn’t perfect, just a hired gun who’ll keep the train on the tracks. But Johnson cut his teeth working for Lucas in the early ’80s as an art director on EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and has thus far directed two wonderful (and totally different) films, THE ROCKETEER and OCTOBER SKY. That’s two wonderful films more than Brett Ratner has made; Ratner seemed to be the favorite after he performed the same ‘emergency fill-in’ service for Fox when Bryan Singer left X3.

Lon Chaney and Evelyn Ankers in THE WOLF MAN (1941).
Remember, filming is set to commence in weeks – not months. The script (penned by SE7EN’s Andrew Kevin Walker), actors (Benicio Del Toro as Lawrence Talbot and Anthony Hopkins as Talbot Sr.), EFX make-up (by Rick Baker!), locations, costume and design work are all already locked, so whomever Universal hires isn’t going to have too much wiggle room to put their own stamp on the proceedings.

Texas Frightmare Weekend: The Dead Will Rise in Dallas

txz.jpgDoes the thought of spending another weekend fighting your way through Deeley Plaza traffic make you wish that you were in the center of triangulated crossfire? Whether you’re a Lone Star resident or just thinking about a visit – don’t forget the Texas Frightmare Weekend, February 21st to the 24th. Located within a Jim Bowie knife throw of the Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport at the Hilton DFW Lakes hotel, the Frightmare is the largest convention of its kind in the Southwest.
If the chance to pepper Malcolm McDowell with questions about everything from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE to CALIGULA to ENTOURAGE (and don’t forget about BLUE THUNDER – Viva Col. Cochrane!) doesn’t thrill – check your pulse, it can’t possibly provide sufficient blood flow.
And speaking of blood flow, fans of George A. Romero’s DEAD films have good reason to rejoice, as the guest list features what must be the largest single gathering of cast members in one place. NIGHT’s Judith O’Dea, Russ Streiner, and Bill Hinzman; DAWN’s Ken Foree, David Emge, and Scott Reiniger; DAY’s Joe Pilato, Howard Sherman, and Jarlath Conroy; and LAND’s Robert Joy, and Eugene Clark. Romero himself will be there as well; reminiscing about his classic films, and ready to answer questions about the newest entry in the franchise, DIARY OF THE DEAD (opening February 15th!).
Other headliners include everyone’s favorite movie mom Dee Wallace Stone, EFX makeup masters Tom Savini and Greg Nicotero, horror hostess Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson, scariest movie-kid ever Harvey Stephens (young Damien in the original The Omen), the lovely Scout Taylor Compton, Danielle Harris, and Kristina Klebe from Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN reboot.
The usual horror-con bells & whistles abound – massive vendor areas, screenings, panels, and maybe a few surprises. Anyone interested in hotel reservations should act right away; rooms are being offered at a massive discount for attendees but they’re going fast. Details on hotel reservations and convention tickets, plus a full briefing on events and a complete guest list can be found at the official website. If you are not so lucky to make it, rest assured that your faithful Scribe will be there to recount all the bloody details.