From Within – After Dark Horrorfest Review

The second of “8 Films to Die For” in the 2009 edition of the After Dark Horrorfest is an improvement over DYING BREED. Although FROM WITHIN lacks DYING’S technical polish (the cinematography, for example is relatively drab, suggesting the low-budget origins), at least FROM WITHIN has an interesting premise from which the screenplay builds a reasonably intriguing supernatural mystery.  The resulting horror is relatively tame for an R-rated film; the emphasis is more on a spooky sense of dread, punctuated by occasional bursts of violence and flashes of gore (the later usually seen in terms of the aftermath, not the actual perpetration). Hard-core horror hounds may be disappointed, but those with a taste for more traditional horror will find a few enjoyable moments before the film runs out of gas and resorts to a predictable twist ending.
The story begins with a Goth kid performing a ritual and then killing himself, triggering a chain of suicides, each victim having been in close proximity to the previous victim. Suspicion in the small, religious community falls on the dead boy’s brother Aidan (Thomas Dekker), who is beaten bloody by Dylan (Kelly Batz), the son of the local pastor. Lindsay (Elizabeth Rice) takes the wounded Aidan home, commencing a friendship and possibly romance – which puts her at odds with the rest of the community, including her alcoholic step-mom (Laura Allen) and mom’s ex-con boyfriend (character actor Adam Goldberg, obviously having fun, cast against type). Why are the towns-folk killing themselves one by one? Eventually Lindsay learns that the ritual suicide of Aidan’s brother was an act of revenge; their mother was burned as a witch after being blamed for the death of a young man who drowned near her home. There is only one way to stop the curse, and it requires a sacrifice…
With its supernatural suicides and high school romance in a horror context, FROM WITHIN feels like a conflation of THE HAPPENING and TWILIGHT. In the grand tradition of low-budget exploitation, FROM WITHIN dares to go in directions that glossy mainstream films would fear to tread, and it deserves some recognition for this, even if it eventually loses its way.
Although the conception of the characters is familiar, the writing and performances are strong enough to sell them as believable people. The only rotten apple in this bunch is Margo Harshman as Aidan’s snooty cousin Sadie, but perhaps we cannot blame her for delivering a one-note performance in a role that has virtually no notes to sing – Sadie serves almost no function in the plot except to be so unlikable that when the lynch mob comes, you’re almost rooting for them to get her.
With its isolated town suffering under a supernatural curse that kills people in the form of suicide, FROM WITHIN bears some similarities to Mario Bava’s Gothic horror effort KILL, BABY KILL (Operazione Paura, 1968). The Bava connection is emphasized in an early sequence set in a dress show, where mannequins haunt the shadows like ghosts waiting to strike, while lights being turned on and off hide the approach of the real threat.
This brief shuddery scene – which pointedly does not end in bloodshed – shows the film striving for a more subtle brand of horror than usually seen in the After Dark Horrorfest offerings, and it earns a certain amount of goodwill even if it is not always quite this effective. The makeup-and-contact lens look of the phantoms is moderately frightening but a bit overly familiar, and the first scene in which we actually see death inflicted is bungled, turning what should have been a show-stopping moment into a forgettable throwaway. (You’d think the sight of someone having her arms forcibly dragged over the jagged pieces of a broken window would rank in Dario Argento territory, but you would be wrong.)
The revelation that each phantom urging a new victim onto self-destruction is in fact a doppelganger of said victim provides for some eerie effects and unexpected directorial manipulation: after earlier glimpses of reflections out of synch with their owners, there is some nice moment when we see what we think is the next victim preening in front of a bathroom mirror; just when we expect her reflection to manifest in some supernatural way, the real girl steps out of a bathroom stall, and we realize that we have actually been watching her phantom double all along.
The script sets up a potentially intriguing conflict between different world views. Unfortunately, the conflict is muddled by a lack of clarity: The Christian community is (predictably) depicted as a bunch of hypocritical rednecks, but they avoid descending to the level of cartoon characterization that bedeviled THE MIST – at least until they go witch-hunting near the end, at which point the film seems to state outright that they deserve the curse that has been visited upon them. The persecuted “witch” family is initially depicted as innocent victims before the story ultimately vindicates the community’s suspicions about them.  Although Aidan neither worships nor believes in Satan (which he considers a creation of the Christian religion – ignoring Satan’s pre-Christian origins in the Old Testament), he later tells us that the fatal curse was derived from a grimoire– a magical tome that typically provide instructions for summong demons. This apparent contradiction is never clarified with an explication of Aiden’s actual beliefs.
With Lindsay cast as the character trying to negotiate a middle road between the two factions, the script seems to be seeking some  compromise between the two extremes, but in the end FROM WITHIN heads in a more cynical direction, suggesting that we cannot all just get along. The twist ending has a certain perverse logic to it (in attempting to destroy evil, Dylan actual perpetuates it), but the depiction of the consequences feels like a hastily executed afterthought. 
With this conclusion, FROM WITHIN – again like Bava in KILLY BABY KILL – seems to be striving to present a misanthropic worldview in which the battle leaves both sides decimated. It is an interesting idea, but without Bava’s assured handling it comes across like a cheap twist – an excuse for a last-minute shock – not a profound insight into the human condition. Instead of looking into the dark depths of the human soul, we see only the superficial manipulation of the filmmakers.
FROM WITHIN (2008). Directed by Phedon Papamichael. Written by Brad Keene. Cast: Elizabeth Rice, Thomas Dekker, Kelly Blatz, Laura Allen, Rumer Willis, Margo Harshman, Brittany Robertson, Jared Harris, Steven Culp.
NOTES: Brad Keene, FROM WITHIN’s screenwriter, previously write THE GRAVEDANCERS, which was one of the “8 Films to Die For” in the first After Dark Horrorfest, back in 2006.

Dying Breed – After Dark Horrorfest Review

The third After Dark Horrorfest (which bills itself as “8 Films to Die For”) gets off to a shaky start with yet another depiction of what can go wrong if you go wandering through the wilds of Australia. In this case, the setting is the island of Tasmania rather than the outback, but after WOLF CREEK and STORM WARNING, any city folk stupid enough to wander this far off the track deserve whatever they get – and boy, do they get it. The plot has Nina (Mirrah Foulkes) and three friends searching for an elusive tiger, long thought to be extinct. Eight years ago, Nina’s sister turned up drowned while on a similar quest, but no one seems particularly concerned that her drowning might have been more than an accident – even though all her teeth had been removed before her death. 
It soon becomes apparent that tigers are not the most threatening predator in the area because the intimidating local residents are – you guessed it – cannibals. It seems they are descended from an escaped convict who survived in the wild by devouring his other convicts who escaped with him The locals maintain this family tradition, earning a living by selling meat pies that would do Sweeny Todd proud.
Following in the tradition of the previous Australian outback horror films, DYING BREED takes its time to get to the gore, spending its first half introducing the characters and getting them to their destination. The exposition is nicely handled, often through flashbacks, and the performances and the writing are not bad, but they are somewhat blunted by the fact that we know we are simply seeing lambs being led to the slaughter.
The cinematography does a nice job of conveying the desolation and dread of the wilderness locations (enhanced with some computer-generated imagery). Thankfully, director Jody Dwyer mostly avoids flashy visual pyrotechnics, resorting to shaky camera work and fast-cutting only during the violent action scenes – which in a way renders the gore far more discrete because you cannot get a good look at it. Which is just as well, because once you’ve seen one maniac’s bone-filled lair, you don’t really need to see another.
The story follows an old tradition that dates back at least to Lovecraft: inbred rural cannibals threatening those who wander onto their turf. This rather condescending view of provincial life is balanced by the characterizations: one of the city-folk is a hot-headed, angry bastard, and at least a couple of the locals have some sympathetic attributes.
Unfortunately, the script is not smart enough to work these potential complexities into a dramatically satisfying conclusion, instead opting for a cheap twist ending that leaves too many questions unanswered, such as: Are there really enough unsuspecting travellers wandering off the beaten path to fill all those pies that fuel the local economy? And: if the town has almost no women (a point made in the dialogue) and propagates itself through the forced breeding of outside females, can the local populace really be considered inbred?
Too bad. The quest for the tiger is initially intriguing, but it turns out to be just a pretext for getting the characters into danger. The early promise is squandered, leaving nothing but disappointment in its wake – a point only emphasized by a lame final shot showing that one of the victims captured an image of the tiger on a cell phone camera.
Considering the disappointment, one wonders why After Dark thought this film worthy of inclusion as one of its 8 Films to Die For. Presumably the presence of Leigh Whannell (SAW) and Nathan Phillips (WOLF CREEK) – prominently mentioned on the posters – was deemed enough to draw the horror crowd.
DYING BREED (2008). Directed by Jody Dwyer. Written by Michael Boughen, Jody Dwyer, Rod Morris. Cast: Mirrah Foulkes, Leigh Whannell, Nathan Phillips, Melanie Vallejo, Billie Brown, Peter Docker. Brendan Donoghue, Bianca Cutrona.

After Dark Horrofest 2009

The latest installment of After Dark’s “8 Films to Die For” horror festival runs for one week in approximately 50 theatres nationwide. This year’s eight titles are THE BROKEN, SLAUGHTER, PERKINS 15, BUTTERFLY EFFECT: REVELATION. FROM WITHIN, DYING BREED, AUTOPSY, and VOICES. As in the previous After Dark film fests, the titles will play in rotation; each one is a separate admission, but some theatres offer festival tickets. Check your local listings for showtimes. Release dates: January 9 through 15.

Friday the 13th 2009

NOTE: This trailer is widescreen, so you will have to click through to see it in its proper aspect ratio. My Space posted the trailer for the new FRIDAY THE 13TH. Amusingly, they flag it with the description “Returning to the story that started it all,” even though the the remake is heavily influenced by the sequels, as evidenced by the trailer’s prominent display of the machete-wielding Jason in his familiar hockey-mask. Jason Voorhees barely appears in the original FRIDAY THE 13TH (his mom committed all the murders), and he did not put on the mask until Part III. Presumably, FRIDAY fans were in no mood to watch another movie about an unseen killer who turns out to be Mrs. Voorhees; they want to see Jason slicing and dicing his way through a cast of innocuous camp counselors.
One potential area for improvement would be for the new FRIDAY to sort out the contradiction that haunts the original franchise: In the first FRIDAY, Mrs. Voorhees was supposedly motivated by the drowning of her son, yet the subsequent sequels had Jason very much alive. So why, exactly, did his mother feel the need to avenge his “death.”
UPDATE: We have replaced the MySpace version of the trailer with one embedded from YouTube. The film comes out in February – on Friday the 13th, naturally.

Nightmare (a.k.a. "Gawi," 2000) – Horror Film Review

This 2000 release is the work of South Korean writer-director Byeong-ki Ahn, who went on to make the excellent PHONE, but it is not quite up to the level of that subsequent work. NIGHTMARE (whose Korean title translates as “Scissors”) plays out like a supernatural-slasher-film murder-mystery, with lots of flashbacks, little detective work, and some unconvincing red herrings. The result is an interesting (though unsatisfactory) hybrid of Asian horror motifs (as in 1998’s RING), combined with giallo-style gore of the Dario Argento variety. The result, like oil and vinegar, has its appeal, but the elements do not necessarily mix well. Continue reading “Nightmare (a.k.a. "Gawi," 2000) – Horror Film Review”