This After Dark Horrorfest DVD set offers an eclectic mix of content, ranging from humble low-budget labors of love to overt studio calling cards. The quality of the films varies, without a uniform standard of excellence, so it’s recommended that readers pick and choose which titles pique their interest, as all of them are available separately in single-disc editions, rather than shell out the money for a bunch of films directed by newcomers you might not have heard of outside of the festival circuit.
Easily the best of the films is Mulberry Street, a gritty New York City story about a fast-moving virus that transforms humans into gnarly rat creatures, evoking Larry Cohen’s Q: the Winged Serpent and his compatriot William Lustig’s Maniac Cop, which took B-movie premises and used them for wry social commentary and an excuse to show the character, humor, and tough resilience of Big Apple denizens. The rodent menace makes a surprisingly strong metaphor for inner-city corruption, since the heroes are recently evicted working-class tenants getting squeezed out of their Lower East Side apartment building by gentrification. But what also makes Mulberry Street so special are the little scenes that seemingly have little to do with the slow-building dread, adding vivid impressions and character detail.
Characters who would normally be early on the chopping block of any horror movie (an old guy with a respirator, an overweight bartender, and the grouchy landlord, among them) not only get to hold their own against the rat people, they also engender sympathy because their quirks are so identifiable. Director Jim Mickle clearly loves the diversity of NYC eccentrics, and how they coalesce into a rich community that is slowly getting pushed out of town.
When the monsters take over the streets, there’s extreme urban paranoia in sequences where characters are racing back to the temporary safety of their apartments. The rat people are deformed, hairy, twitchy things, and when they start swarming around alleyways and, eventually, the hallways of buildings, their menace is palpable; any city folk who run for their lives when rodents flit about garbage cans and subway platforms will be watching this one through their fingers. As helicopters dart overhead and police cars speed by, sirens blaring, this low-budget film finds the precise visuals to convey a city under siege.
Since much emphasis is put on the characters and their vivid personalities, when Mulberry Street kills any of them off it feels both merciless and tragic. Pathos is found in the late-blooming romance between the two fortysomething central characters, Clutch (co-screenwriter Nick D’Amici), a tough but tender ex-boxer, and Kay (Bo Corre), a foreign-born bartender. When Clutch takes to the streets, shadow-boxing his way through the monsters to go to her rescue, the moment is not only heroic and literally kick-ass, it is also poignant.
Tooth and Nail is a grungy low-budget slab of post-apocalyptic pulp (think straight-to-video knock-offs of The Road Warrior, circa 1983), where the characters have names like Neon, Viper, and Mongrel and one-dimensional sneering personalities to match. When the world has run out of oil, a group of young, good-looking survivors finds refuge in a derelict hospital, only to get besieged by a gang of roving cannibal maniacs (including Vinnie Jones and Michael Madsen, in day-player cameo roles). Dialogue scenes are stiff, as if the actors’ feet were nailed to the floor, and the action is all skewed angles and frenetic shaky-cam incomprehensibility, a la Battlefield: Earth. The characters, picked off one-by-one in the style of Ten Little Indians, are rote, but you can’t beat the grim hospital locale, which has the best clutter, rusty iron, corrugated steel, and musty atmospheric dread since Brad Anderson’s Session 9.
An abandoned hospital is also the primary location of the present-day Crazy Eights, where six childhood friends (including Traci Lords, Gabrielle Anwar, and Frank Whaley) reunite to unlock some mysteries about the strange death of one of their pals. It’s The Big Chill by way of The Haunting, with each character suppressing some sort of inner demon. Too bad the major plot twist is given away during a pre-opening credit text about child experiments, effectively derailing much of the suspense. The restrained camerawork and subtle performances manage to preserve the film’s desired tone of anticipatory dread, but even with a concise running time of 80 minutes there are too many tiresome repetitions of isolated characters skulking through hallways like mice lost in a maze.
The ultra-polished, high-contrast visuals of Borderland, using music video flashes of bright white light against the ultra-saturated, rust-colored production design, is fitting for a movie reminiscent of both the ultra-violent remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Mexican-set Denzel Washington kidnapping thriller Man on Fire. When three gringo University students so south of the border for spring break, they run afoul of a sinister blood cult with a taste for ritual sacrifice. After a particularly gruesome opening where two police detectives are threatened by machete- and hacksaw-wielding Satanists, Borderland tries to settle into a slow-burn of character development as our heroes take drugs and chase exotic women. But the characters are more stick figure ideas than actual individuals (see if you can guess who will be the sole survivor): a virginal wimp (Rider Strong) who desires to get laid, an arch-conservative misogynist (Jake Muxworthy), and a square-jawed medical student (Brian Presley) who plans to do meaningful social work in Africa after this last hedonistic haunt. Lest we be confused into thinking all Mexicans are evil, there are a few politically correct stand-ins for virtue (a voluptuous young mother who takes a shine to our heroes, and a vendetta driven ex-cop) and an ugly American (Sean Astin, cast nicely against type) who’s a former serial killer who’s discovered a deeper spiritual connection with Beelzebub.
Unearthed features a CGI alien from another planet brought to the surface by an ill-advised archaeological dig. A small desert town in New Mexico has to face off against the creature, but the movie works better before the beastie puts in face time. In the early going, we get to know some of the locals. Even if it’s predictable that the town sheriff has a drinking problem because of a traumatic “I did the wrong thing” incident in the past (with accompanying flashbacks shot in the blinding bright light that signifies “hazy memory”), at least the film defies classical stereotypes by having the role played by a woman (Emmanuelle Vaugier). The Native American characters aren’t so lucky; veteran character actor Russell Means is stuck with the old wise man role spouting moral platitudes before he’s hastily dispatched. By the halfway mark, the town survivors are wandering through underground caves wielding flashlights, engaged in the occasional bullet-riddled siege with the monster, complete with a headache-inducing sound design of techno-booms and shrieking zingers, which may leave you reaching for aspirin in order to dull the pain.
It’s another round of psychotic mutant hillbillies versus squeaky-clean Winnebago driving city folk in Lake Dead, leading to chase scenes through the woods, brutal rape and necrophilia, and pickaxes through the brain. For all that, this is a pretty sluggish offering, content to rehash what we’ve already seen (better) in other shock-cinema offerings. Made on the cheap with a childlike, “let’s make a horror movie” exuberance, what’s missing is the misanthropic hostility Wes Craven had in Last House on the Left and the sheer whirlwind mania of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Lake Dead is a fan’s imitation without the fiery bite of the original.
The Deaths of Ian Stone has a nifty Twilight Zone premise: A young hockey player (Mike Vogel), driving home after the big game, has a head-on collision with an oncoming train, but instead of death, he is reborn into a brand new, albeit mundane, life as a white-collar office flunky. After a day with vague paranormal undercurrents and only hazy memories of his life before, he realizes that forces greater than himself have placed him in a nightmare scenario where he is killed and reborn into a new life over and over again. The conceit is handled with brisk efficiency, with each of Ian Stone’s various lives plunging him into worse and worse life struggles (he eventually winds up as a tripped-out junkie, then later as a coma victim). Vogel is more relaxed and charismatic in this lead role than he was in his supporting turns as victims in Cloverfield and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, his charm overcoming some of the rougher patches of sci-fi mumbo jumbo (i.e., the dreaded exposition explaining his Bad Situation). It all leads to a half-baked Matrix-style conspiracy and drawn-out battle scenes involving freaky looking dragons that seem like skeletons joined together by wisps of smoke.
If you’re into gory special effects and lots of (female) skin, the horn-doggish Nightmare Man is eager to oblige your lascivious wishes. Three minutes in, the heroine drops trou for a gratuitous shower; two minutes later, she’s up in the attic battling a satanic demon that hides behind a Zulu fetish mask; and 10 minutes pass before her car has broken down in the middle of rural nowhere, followed by a nighttime chase through the woods. She crashes a party where couples are playing erotic truth or dare, leading to a routine pattern of stalk n’ slash. None of it is particularly inspired or original, but the HD cinematography is slick and, to the movie’s dubious credit, it unashamedly knows its audience and appeals to the lowest common denominator.
The image transfers are mixed. Mulberry Street and Borderland fare best, with vivid color schemes and solid blacks. Nightmare Man and The Deaths of Ian Stone also have strong detail, with rich saturations. Unearthed and Tooth and Nail are slightly murky, and Lake Dead feels like it barely got the once-over that is the bane of cheap straight-to-video schlock. Audio quality is decent, except for Unearthed, where I had to keep adjusting the volume because of the overwhelming bass track, which feels like a nail being driven through your forehead.
Nightmare Man has a fun commentary on which director Rolfe Kanefsky struggles to defend the technical and cinematic content of his T&A slasher film, while scream queen Tiffany Shepis gleefully cracks risqué jokes. Two making-of documentaries include "Tiffany's Behind-the-Scenes," where she wanders around the set with her camcorder, capturing off-the-cuff remarks from cast, crew, and even the girl who makes the coffee, which is more personable and charming than the more traditional "Creating a Nightmare: The Making of Nightmare Man."
Borderland writer-director Zev Berman, in his feature-length commentary (accompanied by actor Brian Presley, director of photography Scott Kevan, and producer Lauren Moews) tries to tap into a sense of integrity and realism in the true-crime social statement about Satanic cults in Mexico, but it's a strange paradox hearing him go on about realism in a movie that looks like a would-be Michael Bay extravaganza. Kevan reiterates his thoughts in a 20-minute featurette "Inside Zev's Head: A Filmmaker's Diary," juggling his thoughts on violence with his taste for shooting under optimum light conditions and having fun on carnival night. Truth proves stranger than fiction in the documentary "Rituales de Sangre: The True Story Behind the Cult Murder Investigation," where a Texas sheriff recounts his memories of the case Borderland was based upon.
Unfortunately, Mulberry Street lacks any commentary, with too-brief making-of featurettes including a storyboard-to-film comparison and FX tests. It's a pity, because director Jim Mickle has gone on the record elsewhere detailing fascinating production stories that show his no-budget ingenuity (such as using the same apartment room for each set of characters, with a new paint job and set dressing for each, or getting those creepy "city under siege" shots of helicopters and police cars during a NYC parade). On the other hand, all of the DVDs show the Miss Horrorfest Contest Webisodes, which follows a tiresome YouTube format as curvaceous goth chicks have a genre-themed beauty contest.
Horror fans should definitely take a walk down Mulberry Street and choose carefully among the rest.