Dread Central at AFM!

The American Film Market in Santa Monica is like Christmas for the movie industry: You never know what great titles will pop out of the woodwork. This year over 800 films were screened for distributors, quite a few of them horror. Dread Central was on hand for the week-long extravaganza, braving the ice-cold stares of exhibitors and studios to catch the new hot genre titles.

The following is a mini wrap-up of the event brought to you by insomnia and SoBe™ brand energy drink. Enjoy!

Trapped Ashes mini-reviewTRAPPED ASHES

Mixing sex, slime, and Hollywood lore, this anthology film gathers together a slew of cult directors including Joe Dante, Sean S. Cunningham, and Ken Russell. While touring a studio back lot, seven strangers find themselves trapped in a famous horror movie house and recount several gruesome tales to get through the night.

Trapped Ashes starts off promising with Dante’s fun wrap-around segment and Russell’s gleefully demented short about killer breast implants. Sadly, it’s all downhill from there. The other vignettes are dull beyond belief and the script by American Cinematheque alumn Dennis Bartok feels like the self-indulgent exercise of an obvious cine-geek. In particular, a segment called “Stanley’s Girlfriend” – involving a certain famous movie director – is so conceited and pretentious you’ll want to tear the screen to shreds. Ashes tries desperately to be the next big quirky cult film, but for the most part, feels slow and forced. Watch Russell’s segment and call it a day.

2 1/2 out of 5

Death Note mini-reviewDEATH NOTE (PART ONE)

The latest from Gamera mastermind Shusuke Kaneko follows university student Light (Tatsuya Fujiwara of Battle Royale) who happens across the notebook of The God of Death. The owner can kill someone just by writing their name in the book and can even use it to manipulate time and events. Viewing himself as some sort of avenger, Light uses the notebook to punish society’s criminals and is quickly corrupted by his newfound power, leading authorities into a wild cat-and-mouse game.

The first volume of Death Note (which has been split into two films a la Kill Bill) is an intriguing and original movie that takes a huge detour from the usual J-horror fare. Mixing horror, dark fantasy, and black humor with intriguing characters, Kaneko has delivered one of the best Asian genre films in recent years. At over two hours, the first volume is stretched a little long, but is more than enough to make you clamor for the next installment.

4 out of 5

In the Name of the King mini-reviewIN THE NAME OF THE KING: A DUNGEON SIEGE TALE

Ready or not, here comes Boll! The good doctor’s latest video game movie tells the story of Farmer (Jason Statham), a … uh … farmer who seeks revenge against the madman that kill his son. Lots of hocus pocus and sword fights ensue. You can almost hear Uwe behind the camera, screaming “Look! Eez Lord of ze Rings>!”

King is certainly no Rings. It’s not even a Willow or a Krull, but it also doesn’t scrape the depths of Dungeons and Dragons ineptitude. At the very least, this 2 ½ hour epic is briskly paced and marks a huge step up from Boll in terms of quality. The script is about as exciting as Claire Forlani’s acting skills, but the visuals are nice and there are even a few genuinely entertaining moments scattered throughout. Ray Liotta hams it up beyond belief, which only adds to the fun.

2 ½ out of 5

See mini-reviewSEED

You thought ole’ Uwe was done with you, eh? Think again. He’s back, this time with a straight-up non-video game horror film. When a brutal masked-killer named Seed survives the electric chair, the prison buries him alive to cover it up. Naturally, he breaks out of his coffin and sets out to punish those responsible. Oooo, dark.

Watching Seed you get the feeling that Uwe Boll is pissed at everyone and everything. With images of torture, mutilation, and real-life animal snuff, there’s an overwhelming sense that he’s trying to channel his rage into some sort of nihilistic exploitation piece. Unfortunately his demons have taken the form of a laughable psycho who looks and acts like a dumbass WWE reject. While this is yet another in the good doctor’s long line of failures, Boll at least delivers something resembling a tone and includes several kills that are downright jaw-dropping.

2 out of 5

Plane Dead mini-reviewPLANE DEAD

A group of rogue scientists smuggle zombified cargo onto a commercial flight to Paris. Morons. Naturally, the contents get loose unleashing a zombie horde hell bent on turning the coach class passengers into a buffet line.

It may be a low-budget riff on a pop-culture concept, but Plane Dead actually tops Snakes on a Plane in the B-movie madness department. It’s a bigger, faster, and crazier film with fun characters and plenty of bloody carnage. The dead here are from the fast-moving school of zombies and they make full use of the crowded aircraft. Pure midnight movie bliss.

3 ½ out of 5

Cold Prey mini-reviewCOLD PREY

Five youngsters go up into the mountains for some snowboarding goodness. When one of their own is injured in a mishap, the group seeks shelter in an abandoned ski resort. Big mistake! As bad luck would have it, there’s serial killer on the loose and he’s determined to turn these unsuspecting kids into his next sport.

This Norwegian slasher film is lavishly produced and actually takes the time to set up its characters, but still isn’t enough to revitalize a worn-out subgenre. There’s nothing new on the table: Cold Prey is still just another stalk-n-slash flick that sticks to formula and clichés like cinematic dogma.

2 ½ out of 5

The Abandoned mini-reviewTHE ABANDONED

In the feature-length debut from acclaimed horror filmmaker Nacho Cerdá, a middle-aged woman returns to her homeland in Russia in order to discover the bizarre circumstances that led to her adoption. Her search leads to a rickety old farmhouse where she encounters supernatural forces that … zzzzzzzz…

Just like every other movie in the Filmax catalog, The Abandoned is a cure for narcolepsy. Dripping with atmosphere and lavish visuals, it’s a well-directed piece of eye candy that offers absolutely nothing interesting in the way of characters or story. There are a few interesting moments and set-pieces, but overall you’d be hard-pressed to recall them an hour after leaving the theater. The Abandoned is a film that broods more than a gathering of emos at a Portishead concert. And, yes, it’s every bit as riveting.

2 out of 5

Black Sheep mini-reviewBLACK SHEEP

A group of animal-rights hippies accidentally unleash an experimental virus, transforming all of New Zealand’s sheep into flesh-hungry killers. It’s the violence of the lambs!

Black Sheep has a lot of buzz behind it and with good reason. This simple little flick is a total blast, packing in wall-to-wall laughs, gore, and insanity that recall the good old days of Peter Jackson. Watching hordes of cuddly sheep attack and devour unsuspecting victims never gets old and the cast rides it out with impeccable comic timing. A future cult classic!

4 out of 5

Snuff Movie mini-reviewSNUFF MOVIE

Candyman director Bernard Rose returns to the genre for the first time in over a decade. The plot involves Boris Arkaden, a famous sixties horror movie director, who goes into exile when his wife is killed in a Sharon Tate/Manson style murder. Thirty years later, he invites several aspiring actors to his mansion to recreate the infamous murders via hidden cameras and improv techniques. But is this a bold filmmaker’s latest vision or a sick artist’s sadistic game?

Snuff Movie is going to piss off a lot of people, Rose fans included. It’s so shamelessly manipulative and esoteric that it’s hard to know exactly how to feel when it’s all over. The tone shifts from gothic-fantasy to over-the-top cinema verite and, finally, full-on Ken Russell style madness. But when all is said and done, Snuff Movie is an engrossing offbeat film that makes poignant statements about the horror genre and the theatrics of cinema.

4 out of 5

Nightmare Detective mini-reviewNIGHTMARE DETECTIVE

The latest art-house horror from cult director Shinya Tsukamoto involves a rash of bizarre sleep-suicides that point to the influence of a supernatural murderer. Desperate to take down the killer, authorities enlist the help of Wakamiya, a tortured man who can enter the dreams of others.

No, it’s nothing like A Nightmare on Elm Street. Tsukamoto continues on the existential kick he started with Vital in a film that’s far bleaker and more sinister. Nightmare Detective is everything we love about the man: It’s a cerebral and metaphysical creepfest with Tsukamoto’s usual blend of fleshy surrealism and introspective characters. If you’re craving avant-garde horror, look no further than this masterpiece.

4 ½ out of 5

Exte: Hair Extensions mini-reviewEXTE – HAIR EXTENSIONS

The Japanese obsession with hair finds its way to the forefront – and the workplace of sexy star Chiaki Kuriyama. The actress plays Yuko, a hair dresser whose life is turned into chaos when the cursed hair of a murder victim finds its way into her shop of hair extensions.

Eclectic director Sion Sono (Suicide Club) is one of the best new talents in the genre, but Exte – his first big studio film with Toei – is a total wash-out. After sitting through six Ju-On films and countless other J-horror knock-offs, the notion of killer hair only feels redundant. The story is too thin to sustain a feature and Sono’s attempt at quirkiness backfires into annoyance and boredom. A wasted effort from an otherwise talented filmmaker.

2 out of 5

Dark Ride mini-reviewDARK RIDE

While on the road, a group of teens decide to spend the night in a carnival funhouse and site of a notorious double-murder. When are they gonna fucking learn?

Dark Ride overcomes its cheap shot-on-video look with a rather fun first act: There are some cool gory moments, amusing character scenes, and one of the funniest monologues in recent memory. Ironically, the fun stops at the funhouse when our masked psycho shows up to do his thing. The stalking portion of Dark Ride is hampered by serious pacing problems before the whole thing is sent out with a predictable twist ending. The location also lacks the intended punch, mainly due to the film’s miniscule budget.

2 ½ out of 5

Big Bad Wolf mini-reviewBIG BAD WOLF

A young putz takes his friends up to his family cabin for a weekend romp, only to have them systematically slaughtered by a sadistic talking werewolf. Returning home, he begins to suspect his step-father as the culprit and teams up with his hot grunge girlfriend to tackle the mystery.

Probably the corniest werewolf movie ever made, Big Bad Wolf delivers enough gory fun to slip from the abysmal into the so-bad-its-good category. When your villain is Richard Tyson as a wise-cracking rapist werewolf, you know you’re in for some entertainment. This one may be lot of things, but boring isn’t one of them. And Kimberly J. Brown is pretty easy on the eyes too.

3 out of 5

That’s all for this year. Keep your eyes locked on Dread Central for more in-depth reviews of each title as soon as my brain is functioning at full capacity. Thanks to all the kind exhibitors and filmmakers who braved the depths of criticism to let us view their films!

Andrew Kasch

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Steve Barton

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