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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

The Horror... The Horror...

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Wanna see something really scary? Yeah, you and me both. It's never been easy to be a horror fan. For every good creepfest, there's easily a dozen or more crapfests. And even moreso than with other types of movies, you cannot judge a horror flick by its poster or video cover art. Marketing mavens learned decades ago that rabid horror fans will sit through hour upon hour of perfectly dreadful tedium as long as they can come up with an eye-catching PR campaign. Back in the good old days (and to some extent probably even today), posters and titles were developed well in advance of such minor details as the stories to go along with them.

Since hardcore horror fans have been subjected to some of the worst films ever made, there is a tendency among the fan community to be a little... well, forgiving of a lot of these movies. Horror lovers will twist themselves into all kinds of knots trying to come up with something... anything to like about these movies, perhaps to justify the time spent watching them in the first place. For example, nobody in the entire history of the world has ever been scared by a Friday the 13th movie, I promise you. I'm sorry but it's true and somebody has to say it. There are no good movies about Jason Voorhees. Period. And yet, the character endures. I'm as much to blame as anybody. I enjoy the Friday the 13th saga on its own half-baked merits as much as the next gorehound but as real honest-to-god movies with stories to tell? They're garbage. Plain and simple.

And so, we forge ahead, lowering our expectations and suspending our disbelief, hoping against hope that somebody will actually scare us the same way John Carpenter did when we first saw Halloween. The way David Cronenberg did in creepy low-budget shockers like Shivers and Rabid. Or, if all else fails, at least go bat-shit over-the-top the way Sam Raimi did in Evil Dead and Evil Dead II, Peter Jackson did in Bad Taste and Dead Alive (or Braindead if you prefer), and Stuart Gordon did in Re-Animator. We comb through video racks looking for unusual indie projects. We study magazines like Rue Morgue and Fangoria for word on what's happening in other countries. And, most foolishly, we line up at the box office to sample the major studios' big-budget takes on our favorite genre, despite the fact that most Hollywood horrors these days are rated PG-13 and skimp on the gratuitous blood and nudity that hooked us on the stuff back in our younger days.

Join me now as I plow through a whopping 23 horror-themed discs. Yes, it's been a rough few weeks here in Bottom Shelf-land, watching disc after disc of blood, gore, bad jokes and worse acting, but there are at least a couple gems in here. We've got some older horror flicks from the 70s and 80s, a couple rough-edged real independents, and some Asian scares (since that's where all the action in the genre seems to be coming from these days). But first, let's plod our way through some of what the big guns in Hollywood pass off as horror these days if you dare. Can your heart stand the shocking secret of grave-robbers from Hollywood?

White Noise

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White Noise
2005 (2005) - Universal

Film Rating: C+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/C+

Michael Keaton stars as architect Jonathan Rivers, recently remarried and living the good life with his novelist wife and young son from his first marriage. But no horror movie has ever been set against a backdrop of domestic bliss so in short order, the missus is killed in a car accident. Rivers soon meets another man who suffered a similar loss who has been contacted by the dead through Electronic Voice Phenomenon or E.V.P., a technique of hearing voices from beyond the grave through the static of televisions and radios. At first, Rivers is skeptical but once he becomes convinced, he becomes obsessed and transforms his house into a high-tech studio, recording, filtering and monitoring white noise around the clock. The voices now speak to him, giving him cryptic instructions that he follows to help save lives.

When I first saw the trailer for White Noise, which explains E.V.P., I felt like I was back in the 1970s, seeing a preview for something from Sunn Classics like Chariots of the Gods? or In Search of Historic Jesus. For better and worse, White Noise isn't at the level of those schlockuramas. In fact, for a while White Noise is actually a reasonably entertaining chiller. Keaton is good as the obsessed and grieving husband but then, Keaton is almost always good in just about any role. The problem with the movie becomes apparent about halfway through as those cryptic instructions become less and less mysterious. Before long, Keaton's on the trail of a killer and the movie turns into something much more routine and less interesting. I'd have preferred to see Keaton's trademark intensity zeroing in on E.V.P. to the detriment of his mental health and real-world relationships much more. As it is, E.V.P. is treated as not that much more unusual a method of communication than CB Radio.

This straight-faced approach to the movie's central phenomenon carries over to the disc's special features with three featurettes on real-life E.V.P. Making Contact interviews experts on the subject at a convention, while Hearing Is Believing takes the viewer along on a live recording session. There's no doubt that the experts believe in what they're doing but I found the playbacks to be no more convincing than the hidden Satanic messages you hear when you play Stairway to Heaven backwards. Fortunately, you can judge for yourself when you make your very own E.V.P. tapes thanks to the Recording the Afterlife at Home featurette! Finally, a DVD that can actually help you open a portal into the unknown.

As for extras specifically related to the film, there are five deleted scenes viewable with an optional commentary by director Geoffrey Sax and a somewhat interesting, if low-key, feature length audio commentary. Michael Keaton joins Sax for about half of this track and the discussion is much livelier when he's around. Technical issues are up to snuff for a recent theatrical release. Particularly good is the 5.1 sound, which obviously will play a big part in a movie called White Noise.

In the end, White Noise is worth checking out for Keaton's performance, some effectively creepy visuals, and a fairly original take on the classic ghost story premise. Would it have been a better movie if it had focused more clearly on E.V.P.? Sure. But by today's standards, half a decent movie is better than an all-out disaster.

Hide and Seek

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Hide and Seek
2005 (2005) - 20th Century Fox

Film Rating: D

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A-/C-

Robert De Niro plays another widower in this recent release (wives rarely fare well in this genre), this time psychologist David Callaway who loses his spouse to a romantically-lit bathtub suicide. Fearing for the mental health of his young daughter (child actress of the moment Dakota Fanning), David packs up and moves away from New York to a big rambling country house in the middle of nowhere. And as anyone who's ever seen a horror movie can tell you, such a solution can only end badly. Within a day of their arrival, young Emily has made a new imaginary friend named Charlie who seems to blame David for mom's death. But ominous portents suggest that Charlie isn't as imaginary as he seems. Could it be the creepy sheriff? How about the even creepier real estate agent? Or maybe the really super-creepy neighbor whose own daughter recently died?

The set-up of Hide and Seek reminded me in some ways of the opening scenes of Lucio Fulci's The House by the Cemetery and not in a good way (Robert De Niro movies should probably never make you think of any movie directed by Italian splatter-maestro Fulci).

But while Fulci's movie inevitably spirals into blood-drenched chaos, Hide and Seek just plods along, throwing obvious red herrings and false scares at you (a cat jumps out of a closet within the first fifteen minutes) until it arrives at one of the least shocking twist endings in recent memory. De Niro, whose choice in roles these days seems to be based mainly on the location's proximity to his house, sleepwalks through this, while Dakota Fanning is all saucer eyes and pursed lips. Her precociousness strikes me as more annoying than frightening. This is the kind of movie made by people who think they're the first to discover the horror potential of music boxes, dolls, and children's songs.

The slipcase to the DVD proudly boasts that the disc "includes 4 alternate endings", as if the filmmakers' lack of vision is something to brag about. Sure enough, load up the disc and you're given your choice of what version to watch. None of the alternate endings (also viewable on their own) change the outcome of the movie much. They just give a few alternative fates for Dakota Fanning's character. Oddly, the one that makes the most logical sense is marred by a glaring continuity error but that's the least of this movie's problems. Other bonuses include twenty minutes of deleted scenes with an optional commentary, a ten-minute making of, three brief storyboard sequences that were considered but never shot, and a full-length audio commentary. The track features director John Polson, editor Jeffrey Ford and screenwriter Ari Schlossberg and is far too self-congratulatory with everyone pointing out their favorite scenes (there are plenty) and gushing superlative praise over all the actors, especially Dakota Fanning. There is some interesting stuff here about working with De Niro but the burning question of why he agreed to do this in the first place remains unanswered. Again, it's a recent movie so it looks and sounds just fine, especially in DTS.

Like I said at the outset, horror fans can forgive a movie a lot of flaws. Bad acting, plot holes, continuity mistakes, you name it. But the one thing we demand is that it not be boring. Hide and Seek is paint-peelingly dull. It offers nothing you haven't seen a hundred times before. The movie's sole contribution to the genre is a tedious performance by Robert De Niro. Now that's original!

Boogeyman: Special Edition

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Boogeyman: Special Edition
2005 (2005) - Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Film Rating: D+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A-/C

The biggest name associated with Boogeyman is Sam Raimi, whose Ghost House Pictures production company produced the film. Of course, for horror fans this is a much bigger deal than Keaton or De Niro. Unfortunately, Boogeyman is no Evil Dead.

Another in the recent spate of PG-13, teen-friendly horror movies, Boogeyman is about a young guy named Tim (Barry Watson) who believes he saw the creature kill his father when he was a kid. Of course, everybody else thinks dad just took off for a pack of smokes and never looked back. When Tim has to return home for his mother's funeral, he is forced to confront the fears that have plagued him his entire life.

This isn't the first horror movie to use this title (or a variation of it) and it's understandable why it's an attractive idea for filmmakers. The childhood fear of the thing in the closet or under the bed is pretty much universal. There's only one problem with bringing that childhood fear to life on the screen. It just sounds stupid. Just about everybody stops being afraid of the Boogeyman after they turn 8. Trying to make a seriously scary movie called Boogeyman is about as pointless an effort as trying to make one based on the Goosebumps series.

Even so, there was actually one thing I liked about this movie, although it was pretty quick. Early on, Tim goes home to his apartment. Thanks to his phobias, he has no closets, no cupboard doors, and he sleeps on a mattress on the floor. There are lights everywhere and even the refrigerator door is made of glass. Neat idea. Too bad it's over in less than a minute and Tim spends the rest of the movie in another huge house in the middle of nowhere with no lights and plenty of hiding places. If Tim was really that freaked out, wouldn't the first thing he did in that house be to turn on all the lights and remove all the doors? And why do I suspect that I am right now putting way more thought into this story than the screenwriters did?

Anyway, the DVD of Boogeyman bills itself as a special edition though it's not all that special. There's a relatively in-depth making-of split into two parts for no reason I could discern. There are six deleted scenes, an alternate ending, a few animatics and visual effects progressions. These last bits were kind of interesting and I thought showed some creepier versions of the title monster than the final computer-enhanced product. Technically, the movie looks and sounds just peachy.

Boogeyman is a silly, instantly forgettable movie aimed squarely at kids (you can tell because there isn't even an "unrated" version out there with more gore). If the tween set wants to embrace Boogeyman as their own, more power to 'em. But I got hooked on horror at around that age and part of the reason was the slightly taboo feeling you got watching R-rated movies your parents didn't want you to see. There is nothing taboo about Boogeyman. It's strictly establishment all the way. It's the kind of horror your parents would approve of and therefore, the kind of horror any self-respecting teenager would immediately turn off.


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2004 (2005) - Lions Gate

Film Rating: D-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/A/D+

Embraced by a surprisingly large audience last year, Saw is a great marketing campaign in search of a movie. Like a lot of folks, when I saw the posters and heard the buzz (so to speak) around this movie, I got excited. I thought this could be it. This could be a genuinely unsettling horror movie. So my wife and I went to the theatre on Halloween (our anniversary, by the way) with high hopes. And we were shocked all right. Shocked to see what amounted to a college theatre production of Se7en.

Odds are you know the premise of Saw but in case you don't, Cary Elwes and screenwriter Leigh Whannell play two ordinary guys who wake up shackled by the leg in a filthy industrial bathroom with a dead body splayed out between them. Turns out they're the latest victims of the Jigsaw Killer, a sadistic psycho who puts his prey into elaborate game-like traps and watches as they kill themselves. Not a bad premise for a movie, I'll grant you.

Unfortunately, Saw takes an elaborate wrong turn by focusing way too much energy on Danny Glover and Ken Leung as cops on the trail of Jigsaw. And all the stuff that was praised as original and frightening is lifted... hell, let's just say stolen... from other, better movies. The games Jigsaw plays? You've seen it done better in Se7en. That freaky doll that keeps turning up? Dario Argento's Deep Red freaked me out with that trick years ago.

Even worse than the "borrowed" setpieces are the performances. I'll give Leigh Whannell a pass and just assume he bit off more than he could chew by acting in his own script. But there can be no such excuse for established actors like Cary Elwes and Danny Glover. These may well be the worst two performances by relatively big-name actors I've ever seen. Plus, the story makes almost no logical sense. The final twist is howlingly absurd. And finally, Saw commits the one horror movie sin that is just unforgivable: sloppy makeup effects. There's a wound on Whannell's shoulder at the end of the movie that I could not believe made it onto the screen. We'd have been embarrassed by work like that at Troma (of course, we wouldn't have bothered to fix it either but we would have been embarrassed about it).

OK, so Saw sucks but a lot of people liked it, so how's the DVD? Not great, actually. In keeping with the tradition of excellent marketing, it's packaged in a cool clear slipcase and is given a relatively nice transfer and a good DTS mix. But the extras are paltry indeed. Sawed Off claims to be a making-of featurette but it's less than three minutes long, just long enough to see some behind-the-scenes footage and hear director James Wan say for the first time that he shot the picture in eighteen days (he'll say it a lot more on the commentary). More time is given to the making of the unrated music video by Fear Factory on the disc called "Bite the Hand That Feeds You". There's also a "Rated" version of the video (I didn't even know they rated music videos). The videos are different but both have plenty of gore so I'm not sure what the "rated" version would actually be rated. There's also a handful of trailers and TV spots plus a poster gallery. I'd have liked that feature if it was actually a gallery since the posters were what made me want to see this in the first place, but it's actually a slow-moving montage that lingers over details of the posters before zooming out to show you the whole thing. Very irritating. Finally, James Wan and Leigh Whannell contribute a jokey audio commentary that they seem very amused by but did nothing for me.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Lions Gate is releasing an unrated version of Saw in October to coincide with the release of Saw II (which, like an idiot, I again like the posters for and will probably see). If you like the movie and are interested in any behind-the-scenes stuff, you should hold out for that one. I don't know if it'll have any more information than this disc but it couldn't possibly have any less.

Cold Blood
2003 (2005) - Heretic Films

Film Rating: C-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/C/B-

Red Cockroaches
2004 (2005) - Heretic Films

Film Rating: C+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/C/B-

Cold BloodRed Cockroaches

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For independent filmmakers, horror has the same appeal as it does for the studios and often for the same reason. They're cheap to make and have a built-in audience. You can make something that, by most conventional standards, is virtually unwatchable and still get it picked up and distributed. Most of these no-budget upstarts aren't going to hit the Blair Witch jackpot in terms of money. But for first-time filmmakers, it's more important to get your work out there and seen. Horror allows that more than any other genre. One such label devoted to spreading the work of these mavericks is Heretic Films. And while it's fundamentally unfair to compare movies like these to their better-funded brothers, in some ways it's necessary. DVD puts virtually the entire history of film at your fingertips. So if you're standing in a store trying to decide between something by Hitchcock and something shot on digital video in someone's backyard over the course of a year or more, that DV movie had better damn well offer up something unique that you simply can't find in a mainstream movie.

Brian Avenet-Bradley's Cold Blood doesn't quite succeed at that task. The movie starts with a bang as J.M. (Barnes Walker III), a very ordinary-looking guy, murders his cheating wife in an explosion of passion. Unsure what to do next, he carts her corpse off to his sister's farm, a seemingly abandoned series of buildings in the horror movie's favorite location, the middle of nowhere. He stuffs her body into a freezer but has a hard time keeping it a secret from the property's caretakers. Soon enough, J.M. is forced to kill again.

The problem with Cold Blood is that it never goes far enough, as if Avenet-Bradley wanted to keep his movie from veering off into complete exploitation. Unfortunately, the movie could use a good dose of unhealthy exploitation elements. For the movie to be truly memorable, J.M. either has to be a much darker, more obsessive character (I don't want to say necrophilia would help the movie but...) or much lighter. Interestingly, one of the best special features on the disc is a series of songs written for the movie that point at a much more comedic tone than was finally arrived at. Had Avenet-Bradley gone that route, Cold Blood might have been a dark Trouble with Harry style comedy. As it is, the mood is just dark enough to be solemn without being especially menacing.

The disc also includes a 14-minute "making-of", some deleted scenes, bios for the cast and crew, a trailer, some Easter eggs, and an informative commentary by the director, star Barnes Walker III and cinematographer Laurence Avenet-Bradley, the director's wife who also, interestingly enough, plays the dead wife. The film looks pretty good considering its budget, so obviously shooting the movie while covered in decomposing corpse makeup wasn't a problem (though it's certainly a problem Haskell Wexler never had).

More ambitious than Cold Blood is Miguel Coyula's Red Cockroaches. Set in a sci-fi New York of mutating insects and acid rains, Adam Plotch stars as a man who meets a mysterious French girl who keeps popping into his life at odd times. They seem to be mutually attracted to each other but Adam then discovers that the girl is actually his sister, long thought to be dead. Once the secret is out (and her French accent is dropped), their desires escalate into exactly the kind of taboo territory you won't see in a mainstream movie.

Red Cockroaches plays out like an odd cross between Blade Runner and the early, experimental short films of David Cronenberg with a touch of the abstract comic book work of Ted McKeever thrown in. There's a constant barrage of information through TV broadcasts and Coyula gives the movie a kinetic look through digital manipulation. Certainly it looks unlike any other no-budget DV feature you've seen. The problem I had with Red Cockroaches is that ultimately, the setting and look of the film don't seem to matter all that much. There's all this information thrown at you about acid rain, missing kids and a plague of red cockroaches but it all goes nowhere. Coyula claims this is the first in a trilogy, so maybe it matters more later but that seems a presumptuous thing for someone to do in their first feature. And while the movie does break boundaries and create a palpable mood, there is a definite story here which is fairly conventional. The movie might have worked better with less dialogue and more abstract, surreal touches. Still, what Coyula was able to do on a budget of $2,000 is pretty impressive.

Heretic again does a good job with extras here. The making-of is only six minutes but it's informative, with Coyula going into specifics about what software he used. You also get Valvula de Luz (Light Valve), an earlier short film directed by Coyula which isn't bad, all things considered. The disc also includes a director's bio, a trailer, deleted scenes and outtakes, storyboards, and an instructive and amusing commentary by Coyula, Adam Plotch and co-star Jeff Pucillo.

In mainstream terms, neither Cold Blood or Red Cockroaches are brilliant films and even if you enjoy them, I doubt they'll become personal favorites. But for first-time filmmakers, both DVDs are rather interesting and perhaps even inspirational. Cold Blood demonstrates that indie filmmakers need to kick doors open instead of making lower-budgeted versions of movies a studio might make. Red Cockroaches, on the other hand, might not work completely but it is refreshing to see a no-budget movie made by someone with a clear vision and an unwillingness to compromise.

On to Part Two

Adam Jahnke - Main Page
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