There’s a dispiriting lack of imagination on display in the latest batch of low-budget horror movies released under the auspices of “After Dark Horrorfest.” The genre holds so much potential—and has such a strong tradition of filmmakers doing memorable work on the cheap—and yet a large chunk of the fourth ADH wave consists of unambitious reworkings of Saw and routine slasher fare. Is this really the best the midnight-madness circuit offered over the past year?
The Final is the worst of the bunch: a witless, shockless kill-spree in which a generic circle of high-school outcasts traps and dispatches a generic circle of high-school bitches and bullies. The script’s lone intriguing theme is the notion that when certain elements are combined—no matter the intention—the results are always “caustic.” But for the most part, The Final isn’t so subtle; it’s a talky bore, peppered with unimaginative murders. Kill Theory’s novice screenwriter Kelly Palmer and director Chris Moore (the latter best known for his involvement with Project Greenlight) work with a cleverer conceit in their film, involving a group of hard-partying college kids trapped at a lake house by an unseen psychopath who demands they slaughter each other to escape. Kill Theory’s cast is strong, but their characters are uniformly douchey, and the villain’s plan gets less plausible as the plot plays out. The movie isn’t terrible, but it’s nothing special, either.
The best of the semi-Saw-esque ADH4 movies springs partially from the mind of legendary horror author Clive Barker. First-time writer-director Anthony DiBlasi adapts a Barker short story into Dread, about a sociopathic art-school charmer who enlists his classmates to participate in a Kinsey-style project about fear, then exploits what he learns about their deepest anxieties to construct deadly art installations. Part Peeping Tom and part monologue-driven theater piece, Dread is overwritten and more than a little pretentious, but it’s well-performed, and DiBlasi shows a gift for shooting at length in tiny rooms—by making judicious use of frames within frames—as well as an ability to trot out some striking imagery and kinetic camera moves once he gets outside his little boxes. He’s a filmmaker to watch.
The “gathering of potential victims” premise gets yet another workout in the dreary The Reeds, which follows a band of British chums who charter a party boat in a podunk town and putter through a local marsh, where they’re menaced by pale teens who may or may not be real. The Reeds has a creepy throwback synth score, but when all is said and done, it’s yet another who-will-die-next movie in which the characters are so obnoxious and/or indistinct that the only way to respond is “Who cares?” (Plus it has a twist ending that’s less of an “Oh, cool!” than a “Wait, what?”) The Reeds’ hick-o-phobia also dominates The Graves, a grimy, unpleasant thriller written and directed by comic-book veteran Brian Pulido. Clare Grant and Jillian Murray play road-tripping sisters who steer their heaving cleavage and too-cool-for-school attitudes toward an Arizona tourist trap, looking for something to mock. But the joke’s on them: The natives are all part of a bloodthirsty religious cult. The Graves is shot on cruddy-looking video, features terrible CGI gore effects, and is unoriginal, unfunny, and un-scary. And while Grant and Murray make fine heroines, Pulido doesn’t give them anything to do that hasn’t been done too many times before.
For a tonier brand of hick-o-phobia, look to Hidden, by Norwegian writer-director Pål Øie. Kristoffer Joner plays a sullen loner who returns to his hometown to bury his mother, and to get to the bottom of an incident from his youth: a night when he fled his abusive mom and inadvertently caused an accident that orphaned another boy. When Joner comes back, the locals eye him with suspicion, while he begins to get the sense that Orphan Boy is back too, and threatening his life. Hidden makes splendid use of its atmospheric woodland setting, but the story comes together too slowly, given that it’s fairly obvious early on where it’s headed. The movie works best whenever it’s dealing with “haunting” as an abstract concept, as Joner wanders through his old house, taking in all the old smells and textures, and dealing with the painful memories they bring up.
There’s a similar theme in play in Joel Anderson’s Lake Mungo, the best movie of ADH4. Structured like a documentary—and getting the modern documentary style and tone exactly right, which isn’t easy to do—Lake Mungo tells the story of an Australian teenager who dies under mysterious circumstances, only to start showing up in the background of pictures and videos shot in places where she used to hang out. Anderson might’ve made Lake Mungo a little scarier, but it’s suitably chilling, as the family of the dead girl explore the shadows of video images in extreme close-up, looking for traces of the departed. More to the point, Lake Mungo is actually trying to say something, about how grieving people can have their lives consumed by a fruitless search for meaning.
It’s amazing how much that little bit of extra thought and personal commitment adds to a horror movie. Kevin Hamedani’s splatter-comedy Zombies Of Mass Destruction (no relation to the comic book of the same name) would ordinarily fall on the low end of this After Dark collection, in that it represents a played-out subgenre, and its story of a small conservative Christian community being overrun by the undead is too broad by half. Yet Hamedani pays proper homage to George Romero by taking the time to consider the nuances of the situation, exploring how the zombie invasion confirms the locals’ worst fears about foreigners and deviants. (A nice touch: a preacher believing he can “cure” zombies the same way he tries to “cure” gays.) And unlike most of the American-made movies in this set, ZMD isn’t stocked with the usual gaggle of Hollywood pretty-boys and girls. The cast is as low-budget as the movie, hearkening back to the fresh-faced “Let’s put on a horrorshow” spirit that this genre so badly needs.
Key features: The Graves and The Final come loaded with commentary tracks, deleted scenes, and featurettes. Kill Theory, ZMD, and Dread also contain a few featurettes, with the latter including an insightful conversation between Barker and DiBlasi. The other three have no extras, perhaps because they’re from foreign lands where such niceties are shunned.
Grades: Dread: B; The Final: D; The Graves: D+; Hidden: C; Kill Theory: C-; Lake Mungo: B+; The Reeds: C; Zombies Of Mass Destruction: B-