Dead of Night (1945) Two decades before Amicus ushered in the era of the portmanteau horror film, Ealing studios produced this wonderful anthology of five creepy stories. In the framing narrative, an architect visits a country home, and encounters five individuals that are manifestations of his dreams. Fans of The Twilight Zone will instantly recognize similarities between the TV series’ episode “Twenty Two” and the first segment, titled “Hearse Driver.” In fact, both stemmed from the same E.F. Benson tale. The weakest segment of the bunch, concerning a bet between two golfers, strikes a more whimsical tone, which seems out of step with the other stories. The filmmakers saved the best for last, however, with “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” (directed by Alberto Cavalcanti). Is it the man who controls the dummy, or vice versa? It’s a chilling excursion into madness that has been copied countless times since, but rarely to such great effect. Not currently available through Netflix, it’s well worth a look if you can find it.
Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Amazon Instant Video
Stake Land (2010) Director/co-writer Jim Mickle’s bleak, engrossing post-apocalyptic vampire story recalls I Am Legend and The Road. The film follows Mister (played by co-writer Nick Damici) and his young protégé Martin (Connor Paolo) as they make their way north across a plague-ravaged United States, towards a semi-mythical place known as New Eden. The vampires are decidedly animalistic and savage, in stark contrast to the more benign variety found in a certain popular series of films. Vampires are not the only terrors that they face along the road, however, as they contend with bands of religious zealots and cannibals. Stake Land is more than a bit derivative (It’s a little too easy to play spot-the-reference), but it possesses its own unique energy. Stake Land was never given a proper theatrical release, and was unceremoniously released to home video, but it deserved better. I suspect that the distributors considered it too downbeat for mainstream audiences weaned on sparkly or erudite vampires, but for those who prefer darkness over fluff, it’s a welcome respite.
Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Blu-ray
The Church (1989) (aka: La Chiesa) This curiosity from Director Michele Soavi (Cemetery Man) about a gothic cathedral with a dirty little secret never fails to entertain, even when it’s not making sense (which is most of the time). In the prologue, set during the dark ages, the denizens of an entire village are accused of witchcraft by a group of Knights Templar, and summarily sentenced to death. A huge cathedral is built atop their buried remains, presumably sealing the evil within. About midway through the film, when a modern-day interloper unleashes the ancient evil, it runs completely off the rails. The second half of the film contains more random dialogue and craziness per minute than ten other movies. We’re introduced to one of the strangest assortments of characters assembled under one roof, including a group of schoolchildren, a crotchety old man and his amorous wife, and a narcissistic bride. It must be seen to be believed.
Rating: ***. Available on DVD
Castle Freak (1995) This mediocre direct-to-video effort from director/co-writer Stuart Gordon stars Gordon stalwarts Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton as husband and wife, John and Susan Reilly. In a flashback sequence, we witness the automobile accident that claimed the life of their young son, and blinded their daughter. When John inherits an Italian castle, he moves with his family to start a new life, but Susan is unable to forgive him for the accident. To complicate matters, the castle is not quite as empty as it initially appeared. With shades of Edgar Allan Poe, and its themes of guilt and family secrets, Castle Freak has its moments. Considering the low budget origins, the titular freak makeup is also quite good. Unfortunately, it’s never particularly scary, and its deadpan tone lacks the sardonic wit found in Gordon’s better films (such as Re-Animator and From Beyond). While the film is probably better than most of the fare that falls under the Full Moon Entertainment banner, that’s not really saying much.
Rating: ** ½. Available on DVD
Red Eye (2005) (aka: Redeu-ai) What could have been a truly unique and thrilling horror film becomes a confusing mess from director Dong-bin Kim. Red Eye (not to be confused with the Wes Craven film from the same year) takes place on a train during its last run from Seoul to the coast. Some of the train cars were salvaged from a deadly train accident that occurred years before, resulting in the current bout of ghostly incidents. Oh Mi-sun (Shin-yeong Jang), on her first trip as an attendant, is inextricably linked to the train’s past and present. Red Eye isn’t very scary, and it’s hard to tell what’s going on from one scene to the next. Another nitpick: Modern movie soundtracks can sometimes overwhelm the dialogue, but in this case, the telltale click-clack sound of the wheels on the tracks was noticeably absent. While I was willing to forgive many of the aforementioned trespasses, to a point, Red Eye’s biggest offense is that it’s often boring. Maybe it should have been called Shut Eye, instead.
Rating: **. Available on DVD
Dark Tower (1987) Okay, this one hurt. I heard nothing about this film before it became available for viewing through Netflix Instant, and now I know why. Dark Tower was directed by Freddie Francis (his last feature film), who replaced the original director, Ken Wiederhorn. The presence of Jenny Agutter, Michael Moriarty and Kevin McCarthy (in a brief, thankless role) does nothing to mitigate the pain of watching this snoozefest about a haunted high-rise building in Barcelona. We’re treated to interminable scenes of workaholic architect Carolyn Page (Agutter) sitting at her desk, and American detective Dennis Randall (Moriarty) looking befuddled. What’s causing the deaths of people who enter the building? Will Dennis and Carolyn strike up a romantic relationship that’s hinted at throughout the film? Why Barcelona? Who knows? I kept waiting for more to happen, and was consistently disappointed. If you manage to stay awake long enough to witness the smidgen of action at the conclusion, you’ll be rewarded (I’m using the term loosely) with a lame twist ending. Don’t bother.
Rating: * ½. Available on Netflix Streaming