The Horror Vault – Direct-to-Video Review

The Horror Vault (2008)This dismal direct-to-video anthology of nine short subjects is almost guaranteed to provoke howls of outrage from disappointed viewers demanding their money back. The low-budget production values show a certain technical competence, suggesting reasonably well-made student films, but the stories are so flimsy and the pay-offs so weak your reaction is less likely to be a scream of fear than a confused, “Is that all?” In short, this feels like a throwback to the early days of home video, before the major studios had entered the direct-to-video market, when even no-budget amateurs could get their titles released on VHS, as long as they had enough exploitable elements (e.g., nudity and violence). It is a little harder for the small guy to make a splash in the DTV world these days, but Video on Demand (which is how we viewed THE HORROR VAULT) has become this generation’s VHS: a cheap method for low-budget filmmakers to get their films see without prohbitive shipping and handling costs associated with theatrical release.
The opening credits, with a cheesy but fun synth score, suggest a fun ’80s-era horror anthology TV series, but the stories tend toward violent psycho-horror bordering on torture porn, peppered with female nudity to keep your eyelids from closing prematurely. The nadir is a sleazy docu-drama showcasing some of the crimes of Ted Bundy for no particular reason other than that it offers an excuse for portraying acts of sexual violence against women (you can practically here the filmmakers squealing their defense in mock outrage, “Hey, don’t blame us – this really happened!”) Fortunately, there are one or two supernatural tales tucked into the mix, not that their quality is much better, but it offers some variety.
On the plus side, the various episodes are ambitious enough to attempt conveying several different time periods (the 1920s, the 1950s, etc.) with reasonable success, and one or two have premises interesting enough to hold your attention. For example, the intriguing “Alone” focuses on a lone college girl, locked inside an empty sorority house, who must figure out which of two men claiming to help her is actually a serial killer; of course she makes the wrong choice – a weak ending that spoils what could have been a little gem. (The episode is vaguely similar to a sequence in Dario Argento’s OPERA, where the material was handled much better – and with a more thrilling pay-off.)
The stand-out episode is “Disconnected,” which features a man who finds himself confined in an old warehouse where he is brutally tortured. If you’re squeamish, you may find yourself reaching for the fast-forward button, but don’t push it. The hysterical punchline, involving the absurd reason the victim is being tortured, yields the one truly satisfying conclusion to any of the tales.
As for the rest, the episodes tend to be vague or inconsequential and, in at least one case, downright incomprehensible. There is also the problem that, with no time to develop plots, the stories rely only on setting up simple situations – and several of the situations are the same (two episodes involve hitchhikers, more than one features a character waking up in the middle of a horrible situation). Considering how repetitious these nine episodes are, it is amazing to realize that the filmmakers felt they had more to say: THE HORROR VAULT 2 is already available, and THE HORROR VAULT 3 is in the works. It seems unlikely that many viewers who suffered through the first batch will be reopening this vault.

The Horror Vault (2008)

THE HORROR VAULT(Cletus Productions, 2008). Directed by Kim Sonderholm, David Boone, Josh Card, Russ Diaper, Mark Marchillo, Kenny Selko, Thomas Steen Sorensen, J.P. Wenner. Written by Russ Diaper, Drew English, Nicolai Ketelsen, Mark Marchillo, Zach Rasmussen, Kenny Selko, Kim Sonderholm, Thomas Steen Sorensen, J.P. Werner. Cast: Claire Ross-Brown, Kim Sonderholm, Jonathan Trent, Heather Tom, Elisa Richardson, Chad Mehle, James Terry Salles Wells Cook.

Saw (2004) – Horror Film Review

Grim suspense undermined by pathetic plot twists

It might be a bit of an over-reaction to state that this film is all buzz and no blade, but this is definitely a case where “the Phenomenon outweighs The Film.” SAW is a movie of relatively modest (though admittedly undeniable) achievement, but it’s impact was blown out of all proportion by rabid fan reaction and more than a few film critics, who seemed to think we were seeing a major masterpiece.
Of course, the film also provoked its share of backlash, with people either loving or hating it. What is hard to understand is why the reaction should have been so polarized. There are good things and bad things about SAW, and all of them should be fairly obvious to any viewer, whether pro or con, which should have resulted in much more of a middle-of-the-road response, rather than the extreme reactions that actually occurred.
The basic premise is gripping: two guys (PRINCESS BRIDE’s Cary Elwes and co-writer Leigh Whannell) wake up chained in a locked room where they have been stashed by a serial killer who thinks up methodical ways to force his victims to kill each other or die trying. While these two characters struggle to find a way out of their predicament, the film intercuts the efforts of an ex-police detective (Danny Glover) to track down the killer.
Much of the action is intense, even terrifying. Several flashbacks of the killer’s previous victims reveal a certain talent for imagining sick scenarios that are absolutely appalling — not just gruesome but morally troubling as well, with characters trapped in ugly situations where they must do horrible things or perish. This lends the film a genuinely disturbing air that lifts it several levels above the standard slasher-horror flick.
As a director, James Wan uses a certain MTV-stylishness to rev up these sequences. The flashy, spinning camera work not only looks cool; it also conveys the sense of a subjective experience — the hysterical, psychological turmoil facing each character as they try to free themselves from their predicament before time runs out.
So far, so good. Where the film falters is in tying all of these elements together into a cohesive whole. The intense moments feel like a series of great sequences that the writers thought up and then realized after the fact: Wait a minute — we’ve got to figure out a way to string this together and explain why the killer would be doing it.
The contrivances used to justify the action often verge on the pathetic, with arbitrary plot twists that masquerade as clever writing when they are actually born of desperation. All too obviously, the killer’s actions are motivated by what the script needs to keep the story going. The result feels contrived and manipulative in the extreme — which is almost forgivable because the suspense works so well most of the time.
What’s not forgivable is this: much of the plotting is relentlessly stupid. In order to ratchet up the tension (and keep the serial killer alive and kicking to work more harm), the film assembles a cast of idiots who make wrong decisions at every turn; otherwise, the horrible predicament would be resolved far too easily.
For example, midway through, the police blow an obvious and easy opportunity to catch the killer, because (among other things) they can’t shoot straight — not even with a shotgun at point blank range. Also, the plot relies on the killer’s ability to blackmail one victim with the threat that he has been given a slow-acting poison, for which an antidote will be supplied if the victim follows orders within a certain time limit. We might forgive the hapless victim for falling for such a ruse (what kind of lethal poison has no symptoms, kills with clockwork accuracy, and can be cured at the absolute last minute without fail?) except for one thing: the guy works in a hospital! Even though he’s not a doctor, how hard would it be for him to get a little medical advice — surely easier than holding a mother and her child hostage at gunpoint for several hours while the “poison” allegedly works its way through his system.
As if this were not bad enough, the film totally throws away any remaining credibility with a truly ridiculous surprise ending, one so terrible that it demands to be revealed.
The two lead characters are trapped in a room with a body (presumably of a previous victim) between them. After much agony (including sawing off his own foot), one escapes his chains and hobbles away, promising to return. Whereupon the body on the floor rises up, revealing itself to be the killer, who slams the door shut on the remaining victim. What happens next? Does the first victim get away and get help? Or does the killer manage to catch him (shouldn’t be hard since the guy is missing a leg).
The film does not bother to tell us. Presumably, the surprise shock of the body turning out not to be dead is supposed to be satisfying enough to work as an ending all on its own. But it is absolutely idiotic. Why didn’t the two characters hear his breathing in the dark, before they got the lights on? Why didn’t they see him breathing after they got the lights on? And how is this guy able to remain absolutely still for hours and then get up and waltz away without his muscles cramping up?
Why anyone would sing hymns of praise to a film with an ending this bad is a true mystery. Certainly, there is much that is praiseworthy in SAW, but that should not be enough to blind perceptive viewers to horrible flaws and the almost casual carelessness and contempt with which the filmmakers throw away any semblance of credibility for the finale. Having lifted itself up so high in some ways, it’s a shame that, in the end, the film sinks down to the level of just being another dumb horror movie.

TRIVIA

SAW turned out to be the opening salvo in a short-lived trend that became known as “Torture Porn” – a fairly accurate description that nevertheless drew protest from defenders, who complained that the term was dismissive and derogatory.
SAW(2004). Directed by James Wan. Written by Leigh Whannell, from a story by Wan & Whannell. Cast: Leigh Whannell, Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Ken Leung, Dina Meyer, Mike Butters, Shawnee Smith, Monica Potter.

Copyright 2004 by Steve Biodrowski

Salo (1975) – Borderland Review

salo_ou_120_journees_de_sodome_1975.jpgFor the masochists among you (and I am barely speaking figuratively), here is a film that surely sets some kind of record for disgusting on screen debauchery: SALO, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM, the final directorial effort from the great Pier Paolo Pasolini. Intended to be read as a caustic commentary on the evils of Fascism, SALO is marred by the uneasy perception that Pasolini (rather like purveyors of modern Torture Porn) is simply getting off on the abuse he visualizes with such delight. Pasolini refuses to throw his audience any kind of lifeline that will pull them through the movie with some some understanding or insight about why they are being assaulted; he simply relies on the setting to provide context and, presumably, “meaning” to the nearly continuous degradation. The result is an exceptionally unpleasant viewing experience, although the film does have its fans and defenders.
Besides being a great filmmaker, Pasolini was a radical communist with a penchant for creating scandalous, outrageous works of art. Yet he crafted a trio of traditional films based on classic literature (DECAMERON, CANTEBURY TALES, 1001 NIGHTS). Apparently desperate to re-establish his bona fides as a provocateur, he took DeSade’s novel and set it in the closing days of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, telling the tale of a corrupt group of officials who head to an isolated retreat where they torture and sexually abuse young boys for the rest of the film, climaxing in an orgy of murder before the Allied forces can arrive and rescue anyone. The pretty much plotless result is not a horror film in the traditional sense, but it is as horrific as anything ever presented on screen and may be regarded as the progenitor of the modern “Torture Porn” film (although Pasolini would probably balk at the connection).
SALO is one of those films that is the beneficiary of a weird intersection between life and art. Pasolini was murdered shortly after completing the film; although there was probably no connection between the film and the crime, the mind cannot help forming forming some kind of link, which seems to give SALO a resonance which it would not otherwise have. Pasolini was himself gay, and his alleged murderer (who confessed but later recanted) defended himself by saying he was rebuffing Pasolini’s unwanted advances. This homophobic defense would sound laughable if not for SALO, which is one is one of Pasolini’s few films in which he dealt with homosexuality: What, if anything, are we to make of the fact that he presented it in terms of rape and child sexual abuse, as a power trip in which decadent authoritarians play out their disguting fantasies with helpless young boys as their toys? Is it some kind of bizarre confessional or merely a stinging assault on the depths to which Fascism can sink? Pasolini offers no obvious moral; he merely rubs his audience’s collective nose in filth.
SALO is a film that must be seen to be believed, which is not to say it is entertaining in any conventional sense; it’s more like an endurance test that you pass so you can say you did it, and then never look back. I would not exactly recommend the film, but when you look around at contemporary cinematic efforts like HOSTEL, you have to think that SALO might be relevant in some skewed way.

 CRITICAL REACTION

SALO did not exactly warm the hearts of critics, although some may have bent over backwards to give him the benefit of the doubt, partly because of his earlier work and partly because his death rendered this his final film, meaning it had to carry a weight it would not otherwise have shouldered – a fact that the New York Times’ Vincent Canby acknowledged in his 1977 review before going on to write:

 Mr. Pasolini has made a very significant change in updating this work, however. The four hosts—the duke, the president, the magistrate and the bishop—are now Fascists, expressing their ultimate desires as the world is crumbling around them in the last days of the fascist regime. They are no longer rebelling against God. They are demonstrating the evil of the human spirit, which is something else entirely, though I can’t help but feel that de Sade and Mr. Pasolini share a peculiar delight in speculating about the specific details of this evil.
For all of Mr. Pasolini’s desire to make “Salo” an abstract statement, one cannot look at images of people being scalped, whipped, gouged, slashed, covered with excrement and sometimes eating it and react abstractedly unless one shares the director’s obsessions.
Far from being the “agonized scream of total despair” the New York Film Festival calls the film, it is a demonstration of nearly absolute impotency, if there is such a thing. Ideas get lost in a spectacle of such immediate reality and cruelty.

Since then, the film’s critical reputation has expanded if the 75% rating at Rotten Tomatoesis to be believed. In en excellent example of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” phenomenon, current reviewers seem eager to excuse the exploitation on the grounds that it serves as some kind of metaphore. On the other hand, a few holdouts still respond to what the film actually is, rather than after-the-fact rationalizations about what it means. Responding to a 2000 re-release in England, Michael Thomson at BBC wrote:

Notionally a metaphor for Fascism (it is set in Italy in 1944), and specifically about the connection between politics, violence, and sexual excitement, “Salò” has in fact no meaningful link to Fascism whatsoever, but is simply a display of twisted lust, spun by the fantasies of four extreme perverts, not to mention the director himself.Clearly Pasolini (who could either be exceptionally inspired or – as here – absolutely dire) had hit the creative buffers, and so – in his tale of four power-mad, sexually-warped members of the ruling elite – seems to relish serving up endless examples of the most gruesome conduct, which include the forced consumption of food spiked with nails, nipples being branded, and – most ghastly of all – the consumption of excrement. Needless to say, the young men and women horrifically abused by the four condescending establishment tyrants are treated like so much available meat.

If there is one great achievement in SALO, it is that Pasolini pulled all of this off in the guise of an art film, luring in critics who would snear at the thought of sitting through a traditional grindhouse exploitation double feature.
SALO, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1975). Directed by Pier Paolo Pasoline. Screenplay by Pier Paolo Pasonini, Sergio Citti (IMDB mentions an uncredited Pupi Avati), inspired by the work of the Marquis DeSade. Cast: Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Paolo Quintavalle, Aldo Valletti, Caterina Boratto, Elsa De Giorgi, Helen Surgere, Sonia Saviange.

Getting Aroused by Torture Porn

Back in “Horror Porn and Prick Flicks,” I tried to deal with the fact that some genre fans repudiate the phrase “Torture Porn.” Chris Stangl of The Exploding Kinetoscope objects that the term is not a “meaningful genre designation,” and Alan Jones calls it a “lazy phrase.”
Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. The real question is whether the phrase is a useful and accurate description of the films it is used to describe. Is “Torture Porn,” in fact, pornographic?
The answer, at least according to Andrea Colleen in “Ode to the Sexiness of Horror Movie Masters,” is an enthusiastic – one might even say, an erotically aroused – “Yes! YES! Oh God…YESSSSSSSSSS!!”

There are also many dynamic young film makers like Eli Roth, who in addition to being charming and very cute, also creates death scenes that are like sex. The scene in Hostel I where Jay Hernandez is tied to a chair and begging in German [sighs dreamily] between the build up and the gore it’s a wet dream come true.

For me, the important point here is that this is coming from a fan, not a detractor. The text reads almost like a parody of an uptight critic’s worst fears regarding fan reaction to horror. Of course, we should not generalize from a single example, but Colleen insists she is not alone: “You may be thinking that I’m strange, having all this sexual attraction to horror – but I am far from the only one.”
In any case, those who object to the “Torture Porn” terminology may have to rethink their arguments if the fans are enjoying the films on precisely the level that the phrase implies.

Storm Warning: Q&A with director Jamie Blanks

One of the strongest films at this year’s Screamfest horror film festival was STORM WARNING, written by Everett DeRoche and directed by Jamie Blanks. It’s about a married couple out boating off the coast of Australia who get caught in a storm and end up on an isolated island with some rather unfriendly inhabitants. Mixing elements of DELIVERANCE and STRAW DOGS, the film doens’t flinch from showing gruesome violence, but even viewers who normally shy away from this kind of thing may find STOPM WARNING watchable. It strikes the perfect balance between set-up and payback: instead of eighty minutes of atrocities perpetrated on our lead charactes in exchange for a final-reel comeuppance for the villains, it’s more of a half-and-half formula, which works perfectly – including a truly sick and twisted surprise the wife prepares for the would-be rapists.
In the video below, director Jamie Blanks answers questions from the audience after the Screamfest screening.

Read a slightly edited transcript of the Q&A session below the fold. Continue reading “Storm Warning: Q&A with director Jamie Blanks”

Borderland (2007) – After Dark Film Review

One of the “8 Films to Die For” in the 2007 edition of the After Dark Horrorfest, BORDERLAND is a tense, bloody thriller that raises questions about how we define the horror genre. In essence, this is a story about three gringos who go south of the border for a weekend in Mexico, only to run afoul of a local drug lord named Santillan; it is more a crime melodrama than a horror film, except that the film likes to dwell on the bloody methods employed by Santillan and his minions. These are rendered in graphic, horrifying detail, but they are not much more violent than what you would see in SCARFACE (both films feature severed limbs, although here the weapon of choice is a machete rather than a chainsaw). What really kicks the film into the borderland of the horror genre is the aura of superstitious dread surrounding Santillan, a cult leader who uses Santeria rituals and human sacrifices to render his runners “invisible” to the police (or so they believe). The unnerving confidence of his minions, who brag that their souls are dead and claim “jails cannot hold us; bullets cannot harm us” does send an uncanny chill down the spine – enough to qualify this as a borderline horror effort.
Genre labels aside, BORDERLAND is thoroughly engrossing, building effectively toward a grueling climax.  The sense of growing dread is almost palpable. Although punctuated with visceral thrills, the real engine driving the film is fear of what will happen next, coupled with a sense of being helpless in the face of a seemingly all-powerful enemy.
The screenplay creates a completely believable situation, populated with believable people – not the moronic victims typical for this kind of thing. The writing evinces an easy knack for throwing in surprising little details that humanize the situations, which are expertly executed by the cast and the director. When Phil (Rider Strong), the virgin of the American trio on vacation, realizes that the prostitute his friend has set him up with has a baby, instead of being turned off, he finds himself endeared; what started as a quick sexual tryst turns into a potential relationship, and the actor totally sells the transition, elevating the scene from a cliched sexual fantasy to a moment of real drama.
The script also walks the tightrope of creating characters who try to do the right thing under difficult circumstances – without turning them into heroes who will obviously win. This is most obviously the case with Valeria (the appealing Martha Higareda): although introduced as a bartender who can take care of herself in a rough crowd, she never morphs into an invincible superwoman.


Likewise with the rest of the cast: Damian Alcazar provides a vivid portrait of Ulisis, a former cop, haunted by the death of his partner, to hunt for the truth, but he’s no LETHAL WEAPON-clone. In the role of Ed, the thoughtful member of the group, Brian Presley (who suggests a young Tom Cruise – if he weren’t a movie star but just a good actor) may be sincere when he says he would shoot a man “if I had to,” but that hardly inspires much confidence heading into the climax. On the far end of the scale, Jake Muxworthy deserves special note for playing the obnoxious jerk of the group and managing to make him sympathetic; after the character has a near-fatal encounter with Santillan’s strongman, it really hurts to see the once cocky and confident character reduced to shattered cowardice.
This approach is the fim’s masterstroke, keeping the story convincing throughout, never sliding into comfortable Hollywood territory. When Henry nearly gets killed, instead of being inspired to seek payback (like so many movie characters), the terrifying incident far more believably breaks his spirit. Even later, when Ed, Valeria, and Ulises arm themselves and rescue Phil, there is no thrill of anticipatory excitement (“Oh boy, now they’re gonna kick ass!”); you just fear that they are walking into the lion’s den, probably to their doom.
Director Zev Berman plays his hand deftly, throwing down winning trump cards at big moments. For example, the script tells us about Santillan long before revealing him, lending an almost mythical aura to the character. When he finally appears (masterfully embodied by Beto Cuevas), Berman somehow – incredibly – manages to make the man live up to the myth, giving us a Santillan who is both sinister and charismatic, who could both instill fear and hold his followers in a thrall. What could have been a terrible disappointment  becomes instead a step deeper into the Heart of Darkness.
The reference to Joseph Conrad is no accident. Although allegedly based on true events, the structure of the story clearly owes a debt to Heart of Darkness(or perhaps more directly to its cinematic heir, APOCALYPSE NOW). Certainly, the overall narrative thread is of “civilized” white people moving through a primative terrain toward an eventual confrontation with Kurtz-like figure who has thrown off all the shackles of society and set himself up as a local god. There is even an American acolyte (obviously modeled after the Dennis Hopper character in Coppola’s movie) who visits the kidnapped American in his cell and mouths some semi-coherent ramblings about the supposedly great man he serves.
The portrait of a seedy border town where anything can happen is painted in fine detail, especially, the bordello. The dinginess of the setting is far removed from the idyllic fantasy of sexual freedom that one might see in a teen-comedy, but it stops short of going so far that you never believe the characters would set foot in it.
With this portrait of the land South of the Border infested with superstitious customs and primitive evil ready to destroy the unwary white man who naively ventures into it, BORDERLAND certainly plays on the stranger-in-a-strange land fears. Fortunately, the handling of the material is too sophisticated to be overtly racist, being nicely balanced with sympathetic local characters. There is also some dialogue indicating that the danger resides not so much in Mexico as in the Borderland of the title – a scary sort of neutral zone where the usual rules of society do not apply and where the law barely exists.
This suggests a deliberate attempt to satirize the simple-minded Republican philosophy voiced by Henry early in the film (who derides the poor for being lazy and evokes Mexico as a place where a man can truly be free instead of living in the over-regulated United States). BORDERLAND takes this libertarian view of paradise (no law, no government, just rich people doing what they want) and turns it on its head in a particularly brutal and ugly way, without expressing a political point of view in a heavy-handed way.
Unfortunately, after the suspense is played out and you look back on the result, you realize that it is a missed opportunity. BORDERLAND fails in never fully realizing its thematic undercurrents regarding superstition. Santillan is presented as someone who may have supernatural powers – at least he is believed to have them, by both his followers and those who fear him. The film seems briefly to be wrestling with this issue near the climax, when Santillan’s intended victim quotes the famous Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my Shepherd…”) during the ritual.
For a brief moment, two alternate belief systems come into direct conflict (a familiar theme in the horror genre). Rather like THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY, the old Hammer Horror film about the Thugee cult in India  (in which a battle between a snake and a mongoose is elevated to a symbolic stand-off between good and evil), it seems as if BORDERLAND is catapulting onto an entirely different level, in which the action is no longer merely about life and death but truly about Good and Evil in a metaphysical sense. Alas, it comes to nothing. The supernatural suggestions are simply window dressing, and the script has nothing to say about the religious undertones, opting instead for the easier, obvious, and fairly familiar message that ordinary people can and will turn violent and savage if pressed hard enough to defend themselves and/or avenge their friends.
This is not far from standard exploitation territory, sadly, and using the old “based on a true story” gambit as a justification only further degrades the film. BORDERLAND really is not interested in exploring a real-life scenario in all its complexity. You will not learn any insightful lessons about how a cult can grow, thrive, and survive in the modern world; or about why local institutions like law enforcement were unwilling or unable to combat it; or about what finally brought an end to the cult after years of apparent invulnerability. All that takes a back-seat to the bloodshed, which is the film’s true raison de’tre.
Luckily, fumbling the interesting ideas in favor of opting for the lowest-common-denominator appeal does not undermine the effectiveness of the storytelling. As unsavory as the approach can be, it remains griping to the end, even when you wish the ambition had been aimed a little higher. The closest relative may be WOLF CREEK (which also claimed to be based on a true story), but in many ways BORDERLAND is the better film, unburdened with a bad ending. It may be flawed, but BORDERLAND remains a darkly disturbing – probably the most genuinely frightening of the 2007 After Dark horror films.
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Wolf Creek (2005) – Horror Film Review

This is the Australian film that generated a bit of a buzz when the Weinstein Brothers bought the distribution rights at Sundance Film Festival. Thanks to the Weinstein’s previous track record for picking up independent films and turning them into sleeper hits), audiences and critics were expecting a low-budget horror gem; what arrived is much closer to a diamond in the rough — much better than the standard American slasher junk, but still seriously flawed enough to make it no candidate for classic status. Continue reading “Wolf Creek (2005) – Horror Film Review”