Reel Advice from the Video Store Guy

After Dark Horrorfest: Gravedancers | Dark Ride | Penny Dreadful

By Steve Anderson
September 1st, 2006

GravedancersGravedancers
****
DVD
Directed by Mike Mendez
Written by Brad Keene, Chris Skinner
Starring Dominic Purcell, Josie Maran, Clare Kramer, Marcus Thomas
Produced by Lawrence Elmer Furrmann Jr., Bill McCutchen
R
96 mins
2007

Too graphic? Too disturbing? Too shocking for general audiences? Then you must be talking about the After Dark Horrorfest, eight movies that'll have you wishing someone wasn't underestimating studio audiences so deeply.

The plot is simple and yet all the more chilling for its simplicity--three old school chums mourn the passing of a friend by visiting his grave late one night. One friend finds a small postcard on his old friend's grave, and, deciding he likes the message, repeats it and follows it. By dancing on several marked graves. This, of course, gets the occupants of said graves extremely pissed off. And the results of that pissing off will be a nightmarish trip the likes of which you've never seen before.

Now, the first thing you'll notice about this sucker is the DVD menu. They went all out on this beastie and it shows--it's an animated menu easily on par with the best I've seen. That's a definite mark in its favor--at least they took they time to do that much with style.

They'll throw plenty of freak-out moments into this sucker--in fact, they'll be coming at the rate of, roughly on average one every four or five minutes. "Gravedancers" will not keep you longing in the old shocks and terror departments. In fact, that's one of the great things about "Gravedancers"--they will keep things moving and they will do it in grand style.

In fact, the first half hour will be devoted almost exclusively to moments that will have you questioning your own sanity, or rather, would if they were happening to you. But even just watching it is at least a minor-league freakout. More so if you're not used to this sort of thing.

Plus, there are some truly excellent special effects going on here. There's a beautiful sequence involving fires that appear seemingly out of nowhere that is very, very difficult to spot the wires on--in fact, I can't. Excellent effects work will abound, from incredibly realistic corpses to amazing fire effects.

Frankly, if this is one of the films "considered too graphic" for theatres, then I think someone needs to seriously reevaluate what's "too graphic". This is clearly, clearly one of the best horror movies I've seen in a good long while. This is on par with some of the very best--not just the menu but all over. Movies like these will make it worth going to the theatre again.

If the rest of the After Dark Horrorfest titles are like this, then man oh MAN I cannot wait for the 2007 After Dark Horrorfest! This is weapons-grade horror at its unquestionably finest.

The ending is not only an excellent capper to the ninety minutes of terror, it also includes a last little surprise to round things out.

The special features include a filmmaker's commentary track, cast and crew interviews, a making-of featurette, an original trailer, deleted scenese, storyboard gallery, and trailers for The After Dark Horrorfest, "The Hamiltons", "Reincarnation", "Penny Dreadful", and "Wicked Little Things".

All in all, "Gravedancers" is a marvelously forceful work, full of punch and scary moments that'll make you wonder if, maybe, the films "too graphic" for theatres may not be just what the theatres need.

Penny DreadfulPenny Dreadful
***
DVD
Directed by Richard Brandes
Written by Diane Doniol-Valcroze, Arthur Flam, Richard Brandes
Starring Rachel Miner, Chad Todhunter, Mickey Jones, Liz Davies
Produced by Andrew Weiner, Braxton Pope
R
92 mins
2007

Penny Dreadful--it's a really, really old term describing a kind of horrific postcard that cost a penny. It was one of the predecessors to the modern horror movie, so thank the penny dreadful, kids.

And on this penny dreadful, we get a girl named Penny (wow, whatta coincidence, huh?) who survived a car wreck not so long ago. Now, out for a long car ride to face her fears, she finds herself running afoul of a mysterious hitchhiker who manages to prey on those fears. And of course, Penny's got to try and survive this in one piece.

"Penny Dreadful", first off, has the second best menu yet, only behind the incredible spectacle "Gravedancers" put on.

Also, in what is a masterstroke of creative application, "Penny Dreadful" manages to supply the single most reasonable excuse for picking up a hitchhiker that I've ever seen. We're all, ALL, aware of the dangers of such an act, including and especially in horror movies. But this time around, they've supplied a perfectly valid reason to pick him up, and I have to applaud "Penny Dreadful" for pulling that off.

The combination of Penny's fear of cars, and the absolute necessity of using the car to escape, and the fact that she'll spend a little time trapped in one, come together wonderfully to make a very tense environment. This tension adapts very easily to full-blown fear, making "Penny Dreadful" a very scary story. In fact, they manage to keep the tension high almost throughout the movie, giving it a very grueling, "Misery"-esque feel to it.

The ending actually managed to be downright uplifting, which was just truly amazing, especially for a horror movie. There are, rarely, such simple applications of pure justice in horror movies and "Penny Dreadful" makes the short list. Plus, of corurse, your good old fashioned twist ending will make its welcome appearance.

The special features include a behind the scenes featurette, a music video, a teaser trailer for "Penny Dreadful", and trailers for the After Dark Horrorfest, "The Hamiltons", "Dark Ride", "Reincarnation", "Gravedancers", "Unrest", and "Wicked Little Things".

All in all, "Penny Dreadful" is a nice, clever little packet of thrills and scares. The constant tension is pulled up with nothing less than skill, though it's certainly not over the top. Anybody with even a vague interest in suspense titles should get a real bang out of "Penny Dreadful".

Read about the rest of the After Dark Horrorfest!

Dark RideDark Ride
***
DVD
Directed by Craig Singer
Written by Robert Dean Klein, Craig Singer
Starring Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Patrick Renna, David Rogers, Alex Soldwitz
Produced by Daniel Bickel
R
94 mins
2007

Tobe Hooper, eat your heart out.

Basically, what "Dark Ride" offers up is a serial killer who escaped from a mental institution (familiar, no?) who sets up shop in a theme park attraction called, not surprisingly, "Dark Ride".

If it sounds familiar, it's because you may be aficionado enough to remember "The Funhouse", Tobe Hooper's film that did almost the exact same thing.

Now, you may be wondering just how a a knockoff managed to get itself into the After Dark Horrorfest, possibly the greatest collection of fright films ever known. That's not too hard. They got there by doing something so outrageous, so shocking, so previously thought impossible that another example escapes me.

They made it better than the original they knocked off.

I'm not kidding, i'm not on crack, and I'm not any more insane than normal. The knockoff has surpassed the original. How is that possible? Let me lay it out.

First, they also have an opening menu fit to challenge "Gravedancers". It's set up like an actual amusement park ride, complete with various rooms and track-like movement.

Second, they managed to inject humor into the proceedings, especially with the addition of a freaky hitchhiker into the mix. Not too much, though--it's clear that everyone involved knows this is a horror movie. But a few laughs every now and then never hurt.

Third, the combination of the fairly cheesy boardwalk ride coupled against the reality of mass murderers running amok using themes from the ride itself really makes for a good, chilling combination.

There is, however, one problem with "Dark Ride". It's going to take a DAMN long time to get set up--fully an hour will go by before much interesting happens that's not just backstory. But once it does, oh man...look out. It'll be positively vicious.

The ending features a really rather shoddily done blood-filled dummy effect that should be too lowbrow for the After Dark Horrorfest. Oh, and there's also a pretty good surprise in there for those who got through the unusually long setup intact.

The special features include filmmakers' commentary, a making-of featurette, a special effects makeup featurette, a storyboard montage, deleted scenes, and trailers for the After Dark Horrorfest, "The Hamiltons", "Reincarnation", "Unrest", "Penny Dreadful", and "Wicked Little Things".

All in all, you get what you pay for. An overly long setup time does yield a truly impressive climax, but that climax just can't hold for long enough to be satisfying. Solidly done, but still lacking that little something extra.

 

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Steve Andersen, much to his own chagrin, is a five-plus year veteran of the direct to video market. He has spent an alarming amount of time in video stores and seeks to provide the public with advance information on all the video releases that they may never have heard of...whether they want to hear of them or not. Steve appears in one way or another weekly, biweekly, or monthly on such fine entertainment-related ezines as Film Threat, Dream Forge, Reel Horror, Acid Logic, Chaotic Culture Magazine, Malicious Bitch webzine, and many others. Readers, agents, or editors can email Steve at thevideostoreguy@columnist.com




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