Blu-ray / DVD review – The Void (2016)

[This film was released on both Blu-ray and DVD by Signature in April 2017.]

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The recent history of fantastic film is strewn with cautionary examples of special effects creators failing to make a successful transition behind the camera, but this collaboration between debut writer-directors Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski (previously art director and make-up designer respectively on the Hannibal tv series and forthcoming It remake) proves the right chemistry can still pay off.

The Void clearly owes a great deal to the early work of John Carpenter – echoes of Assault on Precinct 13 reverberate in its setting, an isolated and partially closed hospital where the staff soon find themselves under siege from mysterious figures dressed in cowls and robes, and the creatures which emerge from within the building are straight out of The Thing – but the 1980s vibe also embraces nods to Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator and Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, with a Lovecraftian undercurrent both would approve of.

There are hints in the closing moments that Gillespie and Kostanski are sketching out a sequel, and for once it’s a possibility I’d welcome. For all its nostalgia, this is a fresh and imaginative addition to the genre.

Extras: none on the screener.

DVD review – Beyond the Gates (2016)

[This film was released on DVD by Precision in February 2017.]

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Veteran scream queen Barbara Crampton has made quite an impact since returning to the horror genre with 2011’s You’re Next, but this neatly-constructed collaboration between Supernatural alumnus Jackson Stewart (making his debut as a feature director) and co-writer Stephen Scarlata (Final Girl) takes us back in spirit to her original run on such 1980s classics as Re-Animator and From Beyond.

Drawn home by the sudden disappearance of their father, estranged siblings John (Chase Williamson, John Dies at the End) and Gordon (Graham Skipper, Almost Human) search for clues in the family-owned video store. Discovering a vintage video board game amongst the dusty stacks of VHS tapes, the brothers – now joined by Gordon’s girlfriend Margot (Heroes regular Brea Grant) – decide to shake the dice and follow the missing manager into the mysterious realm dominated by sinister host Evelyn (Ms Crampton). By the time it dawns upon the trio that events within play have violent echoes in reality, it’s already too late: they must finish the game, or the game will be the finish of them.

What Beyond the Gates lacks in true originality is made up for in the central three performances (Skipper is especially effective, fleshing out what could so easily be a two-dimensional introvert with hints of Gordon’s darker side) and a gently stated period charm in the art direction and visuals (although the main action is presumably set a couple of decades after the store’s 1992 opening, both lighting and practical make-up effects could have come from any horror movie in its original stock).

Extras: none.

DVD review – Wartime Chronicles (2017)

[This two-disc boxset was released by Koch Media in March 2017.]

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Wartime (1987) is notable as the first professionally-released Doctor Who spin-off produced independently of the BBC, made possible by a contractual loophole through which the ownership of key characters remained with their original creators – in this case, producer Derrick Sherwin, who introduced the quasi-military U.N.I.T. and the redoubtable Sgt John Benton. Unfortunately, that, and the precedent it set for those film-makers who stepped forward when the Beeb cancelled the show two years later, is really all which is worthy of note.

John Levene, who had played Benton from 1968-75, returned to the role for this solo adventure directed by Reeltime Pictures’ Keith Barnfather from a script written by Andy Lane (later to write novels for Virgin’s ‘New Adventures’ line and scripts for Big Finish’s audio series) and hen-girlfriend Helen Stirling. Despite the clear intention of all concerned to add some emotional depth to one of the show’s more popular supporting characters, it’s a pretty lightweight and occasionally incoherent affair, a 33-minute yarn which sees Benton guarding a nuclear shipment whilst fighting off phantoms from a troubled childhood.

Of far greater interest to fans of classic Who will be the extras, not least a 1986 convention panel featuring Jon Pertwee, the third Doctor (1970-74) and my personal favourite, plus Levene, Richard Franklin (“Capt Mike Yates”, 1971-74) and stuntman Terry Walsh. Levene also appears briefly in a documentary partially shot at a Chicago Who convention held in November 2001 (the 38th anniversary of the show’s debut), with lengthier contributions from Franklin and Nicholas Courtney (“Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart”, 1968-2008), and UK interviews with Sherwin and fellow producer Terrance Dicks. Wartime itself has a new introduction from Barnfather and actress Katy Manning (“Jo Grant”, 1971-73) and is followed by a documentary outlining the film’s genesis and the spin-offs which followed in its wake.

DVD review: The Doctors – The Jon Pertwee Years (2017)

[This two-disc boxset was released by Koch Media in March 2017.]

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Every Doctor Who fan has his favourite incarnation of the gallivanting Gallifreyan, and mine has remained Jon Pertwee ever since he first stumbled out of the Tardis back in 1970’s Spearhead From Space.

The show had lost much of its original lustre by 1984, when Nicholas Briggs began profiling key personnel for Reeltime’s Myth Makers series, beginning with the Brigadeer himself, Nicholas Courtney. Unfortunately, when Briggs decided to revisit the footage a decade later, the result resembled nothing so much as two jigsaws jumbled together in a box. I can’t comment on Briggs’ next interview, with John “Sgt Benton” Levene (filmed 1987, 1995), since my screener lacked an audio track for that segment, but the chapter featuring Richard “Capt Yates” Franklin (1989, 1996) is a far more satisfactory composite of the two conversations they recorded.

Of course, it’s the Doctor and his companions who are of greatest interest, and Briggs’ hour-long profiles of Jon Pertwee (recorded in two sections circa 1989), Caroline “Liz Shaw” John (1994) and Katy “Jo Grant” Manning (1998) are both engrossing and definitive. Koch Media plans to bookend this volume with two more, focussing upon Patrick Troughton and Tom Baker, which should prove equally “must have” for fans.

DVD review: Ibiza Undead (2016)

[Released on DVD by Soda Pictures in March 2017.]

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There is undoubtedly an audience for zombie-themed horror comedies, but I wouldn’t care to bet how much life is left in this corpse; all I know for certain is my appetite for such fetid fare was pretty much sated by Shaun of the Dead more than a decade ago.

Making his feature debut, writer-director Andy Edwards wisely fast-forwards past the usual apocalyptic scene-setting and casts Ibiza in the unlikely role of sun-soaked sanctuary on a planet already riven by the recently resurrected. Into this oasis he deposits a gaggle of ill-mannered teens on the hunt for class A drugs and classless carnality. Not much these youngsters have to worry about brain-eaters, you’d think, but it appears the zombies smuggled onto the island by callous nightclub owner Karl (Matt King, Inkheart) have the munchies for junk food.

My main difficulty with Ibiza Undead is that the humour remains unfocussed and shallow, the plot lazily generic and none of the protagonists – with the arguable exception of Karl – are particularly interesting. In general, these are the kind of people I usually would cross the street to avoid, even if the opposite pavement was occupied by ambulant cadavers.

Extras: “making of” featurette; footage from the film’s premiere at last year’s FrightFest; Andy Edwards’ 2010 short House Party of the Dead 6.

DVD review: The Resident (aka The Sublet, 2015)

[Released on DVD by Second Sight in May 2017.]

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Co-produced by Bite director Chad Archibald, The Resident (aka The Sublet) shares that film’s core theme of an isolated woman struggling to survive amidst increasingly bizarre circumstances. However, whilst that earlier release (reviewed here) focussed on a biogenetic catalyst, the young mother at the centre of this drama soon begins to fear her very mind has become infected. Unfortunately for all concerned, the truth is far more sinister.

Much of this film rests upon the shoulders of Tianna Nori, whose performance brings to mind Catherine Deneuve in the far superior Repulsion and very nearly makes up for a script by Alyson Richards and director John Ainslee which only rarely distinguishes itself from the many other entries in the ‘haunted apartment’ sub-genre. Well made as The Resident is, its tenancy in my own thoughts ceased the moment the credits rolled.

Extras: none.

DVD review: Realm of the Damned – Tenebris Deos (2017)

[Released on DVD by 3 Wolves in April 2017.]

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Given how the more heavily CGI-drenched ‘blockbusters’ now resemble nothing so much as glorified cartoons, it was only a matter of time before comics headed in the opposite direction and began impersonating movies. It’s not a new idea – 2009’s Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut included a similarly manipulated version of the original Alan Moore / Dave Gibbons graphic novel, and the BBC arguably led the way with the 2003 Doctor Who serial Scream of the Shalka – but 3 Wolves clearly reckons the format’s a winner, with this as the opening entry in a planned four-volume post-apocalyptic saga. Unfortunately, for both that company and this reviewer, its faith is disastrously misplaced.

Tenebris Deos (that’s Latin for “dark gods”) introduces us to Alberic Van Helsing, lone demon hunter on an Earth overrun by the various armies of Evil now jostling for domination over the ruins. Forced by his own diseased blood to act as an assassin for a vampiric cabal, Van Helsing must confront Balaur, an ancient warrior intent on wiping out the last remnants of humanity.

Sadly, my summary makes this 56-minute adaptation of the Alec Worley / Simon Parr strip first published in Judge Dredd Megazine sound far more exciting than it actually is. Neither as visually engrossing as a comicbook can be, nor as fast-paced as celluloid allows (the term ‘animation’ is barely justified), this hamstrung hybrid is further handicapped by leaden lead vocal performances from black metal frontmen David Vincent (Morbid Angel) and Dani Filth (Cradle of Filth, Cradle of Fear), all too obviously chosen for the size of their musical fanbase rather than any thespian talent. Spending a further three hours in this universe truly would be hellish.

Extras: illustrated 24pp booklet; six art cards.

Blu-ray review: Ghosts of Mars (2001)

[Originally released theatrically by Screen Gems in the United States and by Columbia TriStar in Europe, this film made its UK Blu-ray debut in January 2017 as part of a dual-format package from Powerhouse Films.]

Just as there are times when random elements magically combine to produce a classic movie (Casablanca being perhaps the most famous example), there are many more occasions where the ingredients simply fail to ignite and the project is left languishing on the launch pad. Sadly, despite clear efforts from cast and crew, John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars (its alternative title) falls into the latter category.

Initially conceived as a third outing for anti-hero Snake Plissken, then re-engineered following the box-office failure of 1996’s Escape from L.A., Ghosts of Mars as filmed is closer in set-up to Carpenter’s first hit, 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13, whilst the colonists’ psychic possession by long-dead Martians is reminiscent of 1950s tv serial Quatermass and the Pit, penned by Carpenter’s hero Nigel Kneale.

Unfortunately, Natasha Henstridge (rushed in to replace an injured Courtney Love) and Ice Cube have none of the chemistry produced between Precinct 13 leads Austin Stoker and Darwin Joston, and there’s not much the supporting cast (including a youthful-looking Jason Statham and a criminally wasted Pam Grier) can do to make up the deficit. Indeed, pretty much everything here seems to be less than the sum of its parts, from the sketchy setting (Mars is apparently a matriarchy, for no obvious reason or benefit to the plot) to the curiously underpowered action sequences.

Edited down to 10 minutes, Ghosts of Mars might have made a memorable rock video for soundtrack collaborators Anthrax, but as an addition to the canon of an iconic director, it’s sorely lacking. Carpenter completists will no doubt be delighted with the restored print (although little grain is visible, there’s no evidence of excessive DNR), whilst those new to his work will wonder what all the fuss is about.

Extras: audio commentary by director John Carpenter and lead actor Natasha Henstridge; 1994 interview with Carpenter covering his career from 1984 to date (the first instalment is on Powerhouse’s simultaneous release of Vampires); short 2001 documentaries covering the shoot, music scoring and design; John Eaves’ concept art; theatrical trailer; booklet featuring a 2001 on-set interview with Carpenter and new writing on the film by Nick Pinkerton.

DVD review: Bite (2015)

[Following a series of festival screenings through the latter half of 2015 and first half of 2016, this film was released in the UK on DVD by Second Sight in October 2016.]

The acknowledged benchmark for ‘body horror’ cinema remains David Cronenberg’s 1986 reimagination of The Fly, but that hasn’t prevented many a film-maker following in his slimy trail, often with less than impressive results. The key to that movie’s success was characterisation as much as make-up effects: you had to care about the human within in order to fully engage with the creature he became.

This is clearly understood by Canadian director Chad Archibald (Desperate Souls, Kill, The Drownsman) and Bite is all the stronger for it. Working from his own storyline and a screenplay by Jayme Laforest (Gods of Accident), he focuses upon the changes both emotional and genetic facing bride-to-be Lacey (Elma Begovic) following an apparent innocuous insect bite.

The challenges of impending matrimony (a deeply hostile mother-in-law and a close friend spinning her own web, albeit one of deceit) are as nothing when Casey begins to mutate and retreats into her increasingly fetid apartment (parallels have been drawn here with Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, not without some justification). Begovic (Bed of the Dead, Save Yourself) is excellent in her first lead role, projecting anger and despair through a thick shell of prosthetics, and we should expect to see much more of her in future.

Bite does have its weaknesses (not least the tendancy towards soap opera whenever Lacey is visited by her fiancé or, worse, his mother), but it’s undeniably a horror movie with teeth.

Extras: none.

DVD review: The Horror Network (2015)

[This anthology features five short films and was released on UK DVD by Left Films in October 2016.]

Like science fiction and the short story, the ‘portmanteau’ format is a natural fit for horror, combining the sharp shock of short movies with an opportunity to reflect the wide range of the genre. Some, like Asylum and the forthcoming House of Screaming Death, have an over-reaching arc connecting the chapters; others, such as this opening selection in what was presumably planned as an ongoing series (its original title included the tag “Vol.1”), showcase individual works by disparate directors.

Obviously, tone and quality are likely to shift markedly between the five chapters, and it’s curious that Kentucky-based Horror Network creators Brian Dorton and Douglas Conner (who reportedly began with a pool of 200 submissions) chose to open with such a limp non-event as British director Lee Matthews’ 3:00am, especially since The Quiet shows he can produce a much more effective thriller when working with better material. Spanish film-makers Ignacio Martin Lerma and Manuel Marin focus upon domestic violence for the brutal Merry Little Christmas, whilst Dorton and Conner step into the spotlight themselves with the twisted psychodrama The Deviant One. It’s left to Joseph Graham’s two-hander Edward to tick the supernatural box, as an analyst with his own secrets uncovers the true nature of his latest patient.

As I said, it’s a mixed bag, but such packages often contain unexpected pleasures, and this is no exception. I hope it does well enough to warrant a second volume.

Extras: trailer for this and other releases from Left Films; extended scene from The Deviant One.