Category Archives: 2012 (CLR)

This is the inaugural series of Halloween Home Video, a top 10 B-horror movie list published in October 2012.

Halloween Home Video #10: Nicholas McCarthy’s The Pact

by Dan Fields
First published October 31, 2012 by the California Literary Review

And so we bid a fond farewell to Halloween Home Video (2012 edition), and here’s hoping you found just the right set of screams for your best Halloween ever. Gather the treats, pour the punch, and settle down for one last ghost story.


Nicholas McCarthy's The Pact promotional poster

© 2012 IFC Midnight

For A Rousing Finale

If you have watched your way through the Halloween Home Video list, or been engaged in any recent horror binge, it is likely that you are suffering semi-permanent “found footage” vertigo. If approached with talent and imagination, it can be a surprisingly versatile style choice, but it does wear on the eyes and brain if not enjoyed in moderation. One reason The Pact won the top spot on my list is its rather traditional sense of storytelling.

Even so, this movie deftly combines numerous classic horror themes in surprising ways. It is a mystery, a family drama, and a ghost story all in one. In a typical thriller or horror movie, the final act reveals either a rational explanation for seemingly supernatural events, or vice versa. Seldom does the audience get to enjoy both, at least in any coherent film. In the case of The Pact, ghostly activity is only part of the puzzle, pointing crucially to very real physical dangers lurking in unexpected places. It all fits together very nicely.

Annie (Caity Lotz) is a young woman toughened by a difficult childhood and the subsequent trials of drug addiction and hard living. She and her sister Nicole (Agnes Bruckner) grew up with a cruel and unstable mother, after whose recent death they now face the task of sorting out the family estate. Clearly neither one of them relishes the prospect of rekindling bygone memories. Annie is reluctant even to show up for the funeral, but at the urging of Nicole and their cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins), she consents.

By the time Annie shows up at her childhood home, Nicole has arrived at the house and gone missing under mysterious and frightening circumstances. Annie and Liz are worried, especially with Nicole’s young daughter in tow, and before they can settle on a plan of action, Liz goes missing from the house as well. Unlike your average, easily victimized horror movie heroine, Annie grabs her niece and gets the hell out right away. Unfortunately, she has trouble getting her story believed. A single rough-shod local cop (Casper Van Dien!) takes a tentative interest in her case, but clearly Annie will have to do most of the detective work herself.

Although by now she is terrified even to set foot in the house, she does her best to get to the bottom of the disappearances. Even as the ordeal taxes her stamina and self-possession, clues begin coming her way from seemingly otherworldly sources. It should come as no surprise that the house is haunted, but by what or whom? Furthermore, is the haunting the root of the problem, or merely a means by which to seek the underlying evil of Annie’s creepy little house?

The Pact is exceedingly dour and moody, but keeps things moving at an engaging pace. It prickles with long moments of dread and does not overindulge in cheap scares, although director Nicholas McCarthy could not resist a few here and there. The performances are good and the threads of the mystery elegantly twisted. It will be harder than average to guess the ending of The Pact, and even if you do it will be a delightful shock to watch the last loose ends unfold.

It has been a pleasure to offer you the fruits of the Halloween season, and I look forward to more spooky delights next year. It is my sincere wish that you and yours have a fun, safe, and relentlessly terrifying Halloween.

Halloween Home Video #9: Howie Askins’s Evidence

by Dan Fields
First published October 26, 2012 by the California Literary Review


DVD cover for Evidence directed by Howie Askins
© 2012 RynoRyder Productions

For A Weekend In The Country

If you feel you must milk yet another horror movie out of the bloated found footage craze, please do everyone a favor and follow three basic guidelines: make it short, make it as scary as possible, and bring it to an unexpected conclusion.

Although Paranormal Activity 4 stumbled on its own disappointing sameness, there have been several recent entries in the genre to play by these rules. V/H/S kept itself exceedingly brief and to the point, and the two-part Grave Encounters saga defied all reasonable expectations with a series of truly jarring, if not entirely cohesive, moments of horror.

Of all these contemporary cousins, Evidence fits the proper criteria to top the list. Despite its vague initial motivation, it wastes no time in casting its blithe, carefree protagonists into a supremely weird and terrifying ordeal.

Evidence initially poses as a documentary project of questionable value at best, but soon becomes a record of severe importance. Cameraman Ryan wishes to tape a camping trip led by his friend Brett and co-starring their girlfriends Abi and Ashley. Why Ryan wants to do this is lost in that swampy mire of why most found footage protagonists leave the camera running at all inappropriate times. The implied reasons are that he wants to test out his awesome new camera, and also happens to be just a bit emotionally unstable. This fascination with self-documenting would probably work better with a younger cast of kids. In fact, this might have been a bolder choice all around, although it may have also required the sacrifice of some of the film’s sexual overtones. In any case, on this flimsy but acceptable narrative pretext, the unwitting youths set off in a borrowed camper for the great outdoors.

Everyone seems to be having a good time until the party picks up signs that they are not alone in the wilderness. Sightings of distant, unidentifiable critters in the vicinty put everybody except Ryan on edge. Despite their repeated pleas to pack up and return to civilization, he insists that they stay and let him have his fun with the camera. All concerned come to regret this decision in time.

This is a setup we have all seen a hundred times. What makes Evidence so much fun is where things proceed from such a conventional jumping-off point. To deal out further plot details would be a disservice. The most glib and reductive way to describe Evidence is as a hybrid of Chronicle, Chernobyl Diaries and The Cabin In The Woods. However, an eager minority are bound to consider that a stellar pedigree. And to give fair credit, this movie was in production, and probably completed, before any of the others ever saw the light of a projector. It may lack polish, but it looks good and manages to spin a fascinating yarn with refreshing economy and nerve-shattering atmosphere. The payoff of Evidence is well worth your attention during a first act as familiar as the safety briefing on a commercial airline. When dread explodes into sheer madness, you may well find yourself caught with white knuckles and your hair on end. And what more, really, could you ask?

Halloween Home Video #8: Kimble Rendall’s Bait

by Dan Fields
First published October 24, 2012 by the California Literary Review


Promotional poster for Kimble Rendall's Bait 3D

© 2012 Screen Australia/Anchor Bay

For The Pool Party

It is high time for a creature feature on this list, and Australia was glad to oblige. Bait (or Bait 3D if you are fortunate enough to see it in the proper venue) operates on a premise that sounds absolutely ludicrous… until you think about it. Rather than send blissful bathers into shark-infested waters, director Kimble Rendall brought the sharks to dry land.

Josh (Xavier Samuel, also of The Loved Ones) is a dour young man, but not without good reason. Haunted by guilt over the shark attack that killed his best mate and cost him his fiancée – the victim’s sister – he has given up his career of hunky lifeguard to work in a small seaside food mart. Through a series of cursory yet melodramatic introductions, we meet various neighborhood types as they go about their daily shopping. A local policeman’s daughter is caught shoplifting. Her boyfriend, a store clerk, has been fired for collusion. A more aggressive robbery is soon in the offing as well. A fatuous young couple has inexplicably stopped off to have sex in the shop’s dank underground parking lot. And worst of all, Josh’s ex is back in town with a new beau from her recent travels to Singapore. How could such a day get worse?

“Tsunami” is the correct answer. Dogs and birds in the immediate vicinity have been acting erratically, and it turns out to have been an omen that nobody noticed. On a clear blue day, the ocean decides to drown the coast with a massive tidal wave. In little time at all, the occupants of the bodega find themselves flooded in. From here, escape would seem like only a minor challenge, except that the sea also washed in a pair of great white sharks. Forced onto the highest ground they can find, the tsunami survivors must find a way out or be eaten.

The stock characters in this film are cardboard-thin, with dialogue and delivery that must have been written expressly to elicit groans from the audience. When a movie tries hard to be “bad” on purpose, matters can easily be taken too far. B-movie sensibilities can be urged, but not manufactured wholesale, and the downside of Bait is that every scene in which the characters speak is really, really dumb. In addition, prepare to marvel at how well-sealed all Australian doors and vehicles are. Improbably watertight spaces play a key part in several scenes. But none of these things are why you showed up.

In its core scenario of hapless folks trapped in a supermarket of watery death, Bait has frequent echoes of Piranha, The Mist, and Open Water without ever quite matching the strength of any of these. Nonetheless, Rendall finds a multitude of inventive ways to pit prey against predator. This is the movie’s saving grace. The resourceful use of everyday items as anti-shark devices drives Bait to a genuinely taut and thrilling climax. Also, despite a few CGI clunkers that had to be rendered in broad daylight exteriors, the interior and underwater shark effects are quite good.

In order to reach its full (niche) potential, Bait could have used a good deal more sex appeal. However, there is a simple and well-paced plot going on here, and the film’s refusal to rely on bouncy assets may make it a more sincere pumpkin patch, if you will, than something like Pirahna DD. As a more low-key specimen of maneater encounter, this baby definitely has teeth.

Halloween Home Video #7: Darren Lynn Bousman’s The Barrens

by Dan Fields
First published October 22, 2012 by the California Literary Review


Movie poster for The Barrens starring Stephen Moyer© 2012 Anchor Bay

For A Much-Needed Getaway


Today’s feature is a family-style nightmare in the forest, courtesy of writer and director Darren Lynn Bousman. Bousman is best known to the world as the director of Saw II, Saw III, and Saw IV. That sounds like a setup for a cheap shot, but Bousman is a new director with enough style and imagination to suggest that it may be too early to judge his body of work. To give due credit, Saw II is arguably the best installment in that whole blighted franchise.

In addition to The Barrens, Bousman is currently promoting a warped musical anthology entitled The Devil’s Carnival. As with Ti West’s The Innkeepers, some measure of fanfare over this successor to Repo! The Genetic Opera has probably reached you over the cult-horror airwaves, while The Barrens is still waiting to make a splash.

In its fundamental makeup, the story of the The Barrens hearkens to Stephen King’s better work, such as Cujo, Pet Sematary and especially The Shining. The central plot element of a nervous little kid named Danny and his unstable dad may not be a coincidence. That dad is Richard Vineyard (Stephen Moyer of True Blood), and what he wants most in the world is to have some quality time with his family on a camping trip, away from the rest of the world. Although the family is currently shaken up by the disappearance of their beloved dog, Richard gathers up young Danny, teen daughter Sadie, and wife Cynthia (Mia Kirshner of The L Word and 24) and heads for the New Jersey Pine Barrens, where he often went as a boy with his father.

It will be curious for True Blood fans to see Moyer forsake his antebellum gentility for upbeat Englishness similar to the actor’s real-life cadence. Rest assured, though, that he will not pass the weekend without many familiar sneers of anguish and hostility. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

The sensitive Danny immediately begins to harbor anxiety over snippets of talk about the Jersey Devil, a legendary crypto-monster famously rumored to prowl the Barrens. To be fair, he is six years old. Meanwhile, Richard gets plenty worked up about the slovenly, overcrowded, tech-enabled state of today’s public campsite. Initially he tries to make nice with his obnoxious fellow “campers,” but soon insists that he and his party hike on into a more isolated section of the park. At first this seems like the normal reaction that all dads have on family trips. Soon, however, he begins to exhibit signs of a more substantial and dangerous breakdown. The vacation he planned to bring them together is falling apart with alarming speed.

Something bad is definitely walking around the woods nearby. Richard starts to suffer terrifying visions and increasing paranoia. Cynthia, no fool, wonders about the possibility of a correlation. You are likely to figure out the Big Secret sooner rather than later, so that you may have twenty minutes or more to enjoy the knowledge before the characters grasp it for themselves. Fortunately, guessing the nature of the problem in this case neither relieves the suspense nor resolves the conflict. Bousman has put everyone in too deep a predicament, and a messy confrontation is virtually assured.

The Barrens is a nice, surprisingly tight little genre film. The vivid, saturated, tree-worshiping exteriors are reminiscent of True Blood, though Moyer’s central role might be making that suggestion more strongly than any conscious style choice by Bousman or his cinematographer. A ruthlessly contemporary fable casting the ideal family getaway into hell, The Barrens will serve as emotional vindication for a cross section of adults who have identified a keenly drawn father figure in Clark Griswold, and perhaps feel guilty about not having appreciated family trips more when they were obnoxious kids.

Halloween Home Video #6: Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones

by Dan Fields
First published October 19, 2012 by the California Literary Review

Promotional poster for Sean Byrne's The Loved Ones

© 2009 Screen Australia/Ambience Entertainment

For A Night With That Special Someone


Director Sean Byrne has come closer to producing a true spiritual heir to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 Texas Chain Saw Massacre than just about anyone in the last thirty-five years. His prom-night horror story The Loved Ones spins a yarn of sick delusions and extreme human suffering, but somehow manages to find humor clinging to the underside of such dire subject matter.

In an unnamed suburb of Melbourne, it is time for the end of school dance, and everyone has a hot date. All except Lola Stone (Robin McLeavy), a pink-clad misfit whose hopes and dreams seem to shatter when she finds out the handsome, Heath-Ledgerish Brent (Xavier Samuel) will be going with his main squeeze Holly.

We find out at the very beginning that Brent is a good kid, but grief and guilt over the tragic loss of his father have driven him into a permanent funk. He spends most of his time stoned, listening to black metal and mutilating his arms with a razor blade. However, he has retained sufficient charm to find a nice girlfriend and attract the attention of others, most notably Lola.

Meanwhile, Lola has a game plan in case she couldn’t find a date. She’s quite mad, you see. With the help of her doting Daddy (John Brumpton), she abducts Brent and stages her own “dance” at home. Brent awakens to a grotesque family dinner no doubt saluting the aforementioned Lone Star power tool murder incident film. Lola’s unrequited love, about which her own epiphany comes too late, fuels her all-night campaign of wounding, torturing, humiliating, and otherwise making Brent regret not only refusing her as a date, but also possibly ever having been born. Nonetheless, he is not about to go down quietly, and as the people in his life start to notice his absence on the night of the big dance, it becomes just possible that he may be found alive.

Horror films lacking any sense of humor are typically doomed before they begin. The smallest sliver of a bad joke can make all the difference in tone between a hair-raising thrill ride and an unbearable ordeal. At one point in Chain Saw‘s infamous dinner sequence, nonstop screaming terror breaks down into a savage collective giggling fit, as our poor heroine’s mind snaps for good. It is nearly impossible to suppress a hiccup of horrified laughter when watching this scene, and The Loved Ones breaks tension in similar ways whenever its brutality becomes almost too much to stand. This was the fatal mistake of Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek, which began promisingly but ran its course without the faintest wink or smile into a final act packed solid with degradation and torture. Had Byrne not perceived his opportunities to counter darkness with occasional doses of levity, The Loved Ones might have ended up much the same way. What too many people fail to realize is that the premise of almost any horror film, no matter how grave its tone, is inherently just a little bit ludicrous.

After his first taste of Lola’s sadistic madness, Brent tries to escape and ends up treed like a raccoon in the front yard. Something about the absurdity of his new plight, juxtaposed with the menace of the previous scene, is just plain hilarious. Robin McLeavy takes her performance to a new level at this key moment, giving full air to Lola’s battle between rage and squealing glee as she hurls rocks to knock him down.

To an outsider at least, there is a streak of fearless unpredictability in well-made Australian films. Something written into the cultural cinematic language will inevitably take straightforward scenarios in directions one cannot expect. This holds largely true across the board, whether the film in question is Mad Max, Strictly Ballroom, The Last Wave or Muriel’s Wedding, and in this respect The Loved Ones does not disappoint.

Though boasting a sharp punchline or two, this movie is no soft affair, and has some genuine “hide your eyes” moments in store. The acting is excellent, the technical aspects solid, and the soundtrack absolutely stellar. In addition to the appropriate retro-prom-horror score by Ollie Olsen, you will find a mix of moody tunes by the likes of Kasey Chambers, The Little River Band, The Dirtbombs, Little Red, and Pete Molinari. It is a perfect jukebox of angst and woe, so that you may remember forever that there’s always somebody who had a worse prom night than you did.

Halloween Home Video #5: John Poliquin’s Grave Encounters 2

by Dan Fields
First published October 17, 2012 by the California Literary Review


Grave Encounters 2 promotional poster

© 2012 Arclight Films

For Your Indie Wrap Party

This pick came as a big surprise, and while it may not measure up to the strongest entries in this list, it deserves more credit and attention that a dismissive first glance at its trailer might suggest.

Grave Encounters is the brainchild of the the Vicious Brothers, also known as Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz, who reached into the “found footage” horror genre – a market teeming with derivative second-rate junk – and pulled out a genuinely scary and satirical work. The film frames its footage as the final, never-completed episode of a popular “ghost hunter” television show entitled Grave Encounters. Host Lance Prescott (Sean Rogerson) brings his crew to an abandoned Canadian mental hospital with a history of… you guessed it… ritual abuse and horrific secret experiments. We find out the following things in rapid sequence: The show is a total sham, the hospital is really haunted, and these showbiz folk are completely doomed.

With its lo-fi effects and melodramatic performances, this film achieves nothing new but manages to be truly scary and fun. The pace meanders, as will happen without fail within the genre, but the Vicious Brothers pull it off with much more grace and subtlety than you might expect. This is not a garden variety Paranormal Activity or Blair Witch ripoff. It has something of its own to contribute to the Halloween feast.

Deftly exploiting the polarized reactions to the first film, the Vicious Brothers wasted no time in penning a sequel. Be warned: if self-referential isn’t your thing, Grave Encounters 2 will irritate you. The film leads off with a number of amateur fan reviews both praising and lambasting the various aspects of Grave Encounters until we zero in on Alex (Richard Harmon), a lone fan who has begun to wonder if the events of the movie might have happened for real. This is a sequel in which the first film exists within the world of the second film. But don’t worry, nobody is going to get centipeded to anyone else. (Spoiler/Promise)

Alex is an aspiring director of horror films, and bears all the hallmarks of a film student in his most insufferable phase. He writes scenes that ape the most popular conventions of the genre, then curses them for their artlessness in the middle of shooting. He proclaims himself a spiritual heir to the likes of John Carpenter and Wes Craven. He even goes so far as to tell his ingenue/prospective girlfriend that he’s going to make her the next big scream queen. I mean, we were all like that once, right?

In his pursuit of the truth behind Grave Encounters, Alex sees an opportunity to achieve overnight importance in the horror genre. He scraps his slasher and assembles the same cast and crew for a guerrilla documentary based on the expedition in the first Grave Encounters. Considering what may have befallen a trained television crew of adults in the halls of the mysterious hospital, imagine what a bunch of teens without shooting permits or clearly defined goals have in store for them.

Viewing and enjoying the original Grave Encounters is not absolutely essential to appreciating the sequel, but it makes the experience a good deal richer. And frankly if you don’t care for 1, you probably won’t like 2. It is definitely not the stronger of the two films, but it achieves several blood-chilling moments that are more than sufficient payoff for the investment of time and energy. The third act of Grave Encounters 2 spirals into improbable silliness, even compared to the rest of the movie, but along the way you will find your hungry nerve endings rewarded. That nasty Apex Twin monster from the poster is not just a promotional tease. He will be along eventually, as well as an ECT scene that will put you right off radical brain treatments.

The best way to see the Grave Encounters films, if you can manage it, is as a three-hour double feature. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, but they complement one another nicely. There may be more promise in these movies than substance, but even in the dangerously clogged drain of B-horror, clever ideas continue to lurk.

Halloween Home Video #4: Alexandre Courtès’s Asylum Blackout

by Dan Fields
First published October 15, 2012 by the California Literary Review


Promotional poster for horror thriller The Incident aka Asylum Blackout

© 2012 IFC Films

For The Night Of The Big Storm

Asylum Blackout is a fine example of what can be achieved with a small budget and a simple idea. Good fundamentals and steady pace allow the makers of this film to economize on complexity, and the result is a satisfying no-frills thriller.

It is 1989 in the Pacific Northwest, and George (Rupert Evans) is the lead guitarist for a struggling rock band (though the movie never states it, I secretly hope that Asylum Blackout is also the name of the band). To keep themselves in food and shelter between gigs and recording sessions, he and his mates work as the kitchen staff of an asylum for the criminally insane. Despite the bleak institutional environment, George takes care to prepare nice meals for the inmates and treat them with personal respect as far as his job allows. While not exactly a futile ministry, this only seems to have positive effects as long as nothing else agitates them. At least it shows that George is basically a good guy trying to live well in a thankless and dangerous position.

The asylum guards keep a tight lid on even the most benign troublemakers, but times are hard and the facility is ominously understaffed these days. So much depends on an uninterrupted routine. George begins to notice an inmate named Harry Green (Richard Brake) giving him the eye, and possibly urging other inmates off their daily sedatives. Before he can voice his suspicions (perhaps stalled by wanting to spare his charges undue punishment), a massive thunderstorm knocks out the power in the asylum. In a mildly underwritten chance catastrophe – the script’s main weak point – the auxiliary power supply fries itself in a power surge, leaving the asylum in darkness with a whole ward of psychos out of their cells for feeding. For the rest of the film, George and his pals try desperately to escape the increasingly violent uprising that ensues. Once the inmates take down their first guard, they acquire things like keys and weapons, and the kitchen becomes quite a fearsome arsenal indeed.

Asylum Blackout relies on the simplicity of its narrative for strength, and does not overanalyze the pathology of Harry Green and the more villainous prisoners leading the charge. This is no Shutter Island, in other words. When George finally does have the opportunity to ask “Why?” he receives a clear and extremely disturbing answer.

The moral ambiguity of this movie may frustrate some, but pessimists will relish it. Conditions at the asylum are harsh, but the exact level of cruelty going on in private at the hands of the guards is unknown. Clearly they do not treat the prisoners as gently as George does, but whether or not they were asking for an uprising, or could have prevented it, remains a subject for dark speculation. To be sure, Harry Green is a pure force of evil. He has the look of a bloodthirsty hoodlum straight out of Brighton Rock, with a dash of the Joker for good measure.

Director Alex Courtès paints the background of Asylum Blackout nicely, with spare production design and dreary exteriors of Washington in the rain. The venues where the band records and plays are as nondescript and forbidding as the asylum where they work by day. Being trapped against all reason and hope is of symbolic importance to all these characters long before it takes on material significance. An escape plan is something that George and his buddies should have thought about a long time before now.

Halloween Home Video #3: V/H/S

by Dan Fields
First published October 12, 2012 by the California Literary Review

Promotional picture for horror anthology V/H/S

© 2012 Bloody Disgusting

For The Boozy Bash In Your Dorm Basement

V/H/S is the anthology you should have seen coming but probably did not. A team of hip, twisted young directors offer up a medley of shorts celebrating that troublesome new superfad, the “found footage” horror film. This is the shaky-camera, forced perspective, “faked to look real” style made popular by movies like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, which amateur directors are working to death in the low-budget horror market.

When Blair Witch hit the scene, the novelty of the idea (and very clever marketing) convinced some people that maybe what we were seeing could have happened. This ambiguity did not last long, and once gone the feeling was impossible to recapture. By the time Paranormal Activity ushered in a new found footage trend, audiences were in on the hoax but still eager to see what frightening tricks directors like Oren Peli could conjure. People are still paying good money to see these movies. And although there have been attempts to push the genre further, as in The Last Exorcism or the ambitious sci-fi tale Chronicle, the limitations of the genre make it hard for any but the most creative directors to serve up something new. Fortunately, the parties responsible for V/H/S approached their task with plenty of imagination. In record time, we have been sufficiently inundated with found footage style that subversion to the point of parody seems appropriate. V/H/S, in all its raw savage chaos, exemplifies both the best and the worst traits of found footage.

The shorts are woven together with a narrative about some ne’er-do-well pranksters sent to commit a bizarre burglary centered around a mysterious videotape. Searching stacks of tapes scattered around an eerily quiet house, they discover tale after tale of ghastly misadventures. Please note that despite the central conceit of a neglected tape stash, little if any of this movie originated in actual VHS form. The only reason malevolent forces might have dubbed these videos to the antiquated format is because it’s cooler and scarier than digital video. Like in The Ring. From a practical standpoint, it looks doubtful that any of these films has a perspective that could reasonably have been captured with a VHS camera. For those of you too young to have used one of those, it was some hefty chore. In order to focus on the best parts of V/H/S, first put from your mind any notion of real VHS tapes. It may be a half-baked style choice, but they made it and stuck to it. Just let it go.

According to the tradition of anthologies, from Black Sabbath to Creepshow to Trick ‘r Treat, not all the shorts in V/H/S are created equal. The most notable name in this mix is Ti West, director of the superb House Of The Devil (just to name his best). While West’s segment “Second Honeymoon” is not the most interesting or innovative in this collection, it demonstrates his proven knack for mining dread from quiet, mundane moments. Like a goodly portion of West’s work, it takes just a little too much of its own sweet time.

There are, in each segment, moments of true inspiration to balance the uneven pace and the over-reliance on “video interference” as a narrative gimmick. Despite the overall laxity of the storytelling, V/H/S repeatedly goes for the gut and pummels the nerve endings raw. Be warned: this is one violent, naked, gruesome movie. From the raunchy frat fable “Amateur Night” to the momentous events of “10/31/98,” via “Tuesday the 17th” and, yes, “The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger,” be prepared for some uncomfortable brushes with the lower orders of humanity. The hideous, the harmful, and the downright monstrous are on constant parade in V/H/S. Don’t split hairs; just have fun with it. The Exorcist and The Innocents and Kwaidan will still be there when you’re finished with V/H/S. Open your mind to a reasonable level of vulnerability, don’t think too hard about it, and against your better judgment you will probably enjoy yourself a whole hell of a lot.

Halloween Home Video #2: Pascal Laugier’s The Tall Man

by Dan Fields
First published October 10, 2012 by the California Literary Review

The Tall Man promotional poster

© 2012 Image Entertainment

For The Second Date

Pascal Laugier may be the most thoughtful and earnest of the filmmakers loosely grouped under the heading “New French Extremity.” Although his debut film Saint Ange has not enjoyed lasting success, his second feature Martyrs is a blistering philosophical rumination on the nature of suffering, both spiritual and profane. It is also one rough movie to watch. Do not go waltzing in unprepared. You might try a gateway film first, such as Laugier’s more subdued but very worthy third effort, The Tall Man.

Jessica Biel, the most notable star of Marcus Nispel’s abysmal Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, gets to stretch out in a more complex role here. As widowed town physician Julia Denning, she does her best to treat the wounds and deliver the children of an economically defunct mining community. These townspeople are not convincingly destitute to sell this point, but the stunning exteriors in British Columbia divert the eye and soothe us into accepting the story as it is given us. This movie does look very nice.

Julia has private burdens to bear, and each weighs her down a lot. She finds herself constantly held up to the legacy of her late husband, the town’s previous doctor, and the comparisons are seldom favorable. In addition, she sees more clearly than most that the children of her town have very little to look forward to in life. As though the recession were not bad enough, there has also been a string of child disappearances in the area, believed to be the work of a local phantom known as “The Tall Man.” Things get personal in a hurry one night, when a figure fitting the Tall Man’s description comes calling at Julia’s own house. Julia, though, is not about to give her little boy up without a fight.

Just when this conventional thriller structure seems locked on course for the pursuit, confrontation, and harrowing escape we quite rightly expect, a complete reversal of perspective jars The Tall Man out of orbit. This is a good thing because it is an unexpected thing, but does it also injure the film? For some people, the answer will be “yes.” Nonetheless the movie bravely fights its way out the wreckage and continues down an intriguing side road. More than one side road, in fact. Too many.

In terms of both story and tone, The Tall Man takes at least one sharp turn more than it should. Laugier flirts with some very dark ideas, and although the narrative provides a perfectly grim stopping point, he throws in a few final thoughts nearly optimistic enough to be called hope. This film is tragic, but not as gratifyingly bleak or even logical as it would have been without its final fifteen minutes or so. That said, the befuddling and morally dubious conclusion does improve upon reflection. It is not anything like perfect, but it is surely one of the most thought-provoking thrillers you will see this season.

Halloween Home Video #1: Joe Dante’s The Hole

by Dan Fields
First published October 08, 2012 by the California Literary Review
Welcome once again to October, a time for Halloween mischief, and the coveted season for every horror filmmaker with the influence or wherewithal to mount a wide theatrical release. The major horror franchises and directors need no introduction. Having a feature film play nationally (or internationally) within weeks of Halloween is sufficient fanfare, so let’s turn our attention to the grimy pinkish underbelly of the genre.

Halloween Home Video (2012 edition) is your guide to the unsung scare flicks, thrill pics, and various fright nasties of this year. In a series of bite-size reviews, we hope to provide you with the perfect video rental option for the spooky soirée of your choice.

Halloween Home Video is not meant to highlight the best of the best in horror moviemaking. It is a second look at the smaller releases of this year, which for whatever reason have gained some measure of attention despite having played only in festivals, on small release circuits, or perhaps even on home video only. A few of these movies are very good indeed, though many will require significant garbage-sifting for a small reward. However, each has been chosen for having something to offer to the die-hard horror gourmand. With any luck, this list could become an annual tradition. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For now, hit the lights and enjoy the lurking horrors of 2012.

Joe Dante's The Hole promotional poster

© 2009 Bold Films/BenderSpink

For The Family Night

Joe Dante is probably best known as the director of Gremlins, that great litmus test of how permissive parents are were when it comes to little kids watching creepy movies. In addition, he also has on his record such triumphs as the grim Tom Hanks comedy The ‘Burbs and the sci-fi lunacy that is Innerspace. These are only three of the big ones in a long and prolific career which continues to this day. Not every on the list is a home run, but Dante is a veteran of the trade with plenty of nice tricks left up his sleeve.

The story of The Hole is extremely simple, and the payoff less than revelatory, but it stands as a perfectly good option for parents who want to be sure of spooky but safe Halloween fun. All but the littlest kiddos can watch this film without too much risk of nightmares or long-term jarring. In addition, while it lacks the fiendish bite of Gremlins or the crude wit of The ‘Burbs, it does boast a surprisingly positive lesson about facing fears in order to banish them.

Chris Massoglia stars as Dane, a normal kid rather soured on life by the awkwardness of puberty and having to move constantly because of his family’s domestic woes. He spends his time keeping his energetic little brother Lucas (Nathan Gamble) at arm’s length, until two important events befall them. They befriend quirky and confident girl-next-door Julie (Haley Bennett), and they discover a huge, seemingly bottomless hole under a heavily locked hatch in their new basement.

It turns out that the Hole has a terrifying secret. BIG surprise! From its mysterious depths will rise a manifestation of its victim’s greatest fear. With three children peering down it at once, the stage is instantly set for an onslaught of supernatural and psychic mayhem.

As Dane’s mother Susan (Teri Polo) tries to get settled in a new job, her main worry is that her sons will be able to get along and fit in. Little does she know that while she works, they are on the run from a triad of crippling phobias. There are whiffs of Poltergeist and Stephen King’s It afoot here, but The Hole achieves neither the scale of the former or the sordid depths of the latter. The script is funny enough, the performances are fine, and the scares are sufficient but not excessive. The whole movie has the super-clean look that high-resolution video tends to have nowadays, and above all it feels rather “safe” given Dante’s proven capacity for the outrageous.

The Hole is an uncommonly well-balanced example of the PG-13 rating. These generally either feel like a children’s film gratuitously punched up with shocking content to draw a larger teen market, or an R-rated movie painfully trimmed so that movie theaters can allow those same teens in to see it. The Hole is weird and scary, but light on the strong language, minimal on the violence and zero on all but the faintest innuendo of sex. It also features a zany cameo by Bruce Dern for the older folks. What’s not to like? It might even help some children you know realize that their biggest fears are not such a big problem after all.