Reviewed by Elaine Lamkin
Written by Michael Pennington
Distributed by Lulu Books
There are not that many things that give me the creeps. Clowns do (thank you, Stephen King and Pennywise), Spanish moss does (if you don’t live in the South, you probably can’t appreciate the sheer eerie-ness of Spanish moss – see The Skeleton Key, The Beguiled, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte, Dead Birds, pretty much any movie shot south of Atlanta, Georgia) as well as autumnal cornfields (try walking through a dead cornfield on a cold, windy night. I rest my case). Ventriloquist dummies I could do without – Dead Silent, Magic – and mannequins: Tourist Trap and now this book, Death by Darkness. But the mannequin in Arkansas writer Michael Pennington’s novel is not like the mannequins that were so creepy in the 1979 Chuck Conners’ film. Pennington’s mannequin is a much older one – a wooden one. Google wooden mannequin and then click on Images and you will see what I mean. These sumbitches are WEIRD!!!
Death by Darkness has some very original and unique ideas going on, aside from the wooden mannequin. Set in the small town of Redlake in southwest North Dakota in the late autumn and winter, you just can’t find a much more desolate setting. Add to that a protagonist, Dumas Harvey, who has suffered from schizophrenia his entire life, his childhood friend, the no-bullshit Chloe, Dumas’ doting mother, Lynn, the town’s antiques and oddities dealer, Gerrit along with some almost cartoonish bullies who make Dumas’ life a living hell and it doesn’t take the reader long to figure that the mannequin, mysteriously found in a junkyard, and the bullies in Dumas’ life are going to come together in some extremely unpleasant ways.
The book opens with a flashback to Dumas in high school and how he is the target for some incredibly vicious bullying from town rednecks, Daniel Balentine and Ronny Arwood. I did have a problem with the repeated bullying of Dumas, which continues throughout the book – Dumas didn’t want to press charges because he thought it would make things worse. By the time Dumas, Daniel and Ronny are in their mid-20s, the time the novel covers, how much worse could things get? These guys have put Dumas in the hospital more times than you can count. Kind of hard to believe the cops couldn’t do anything about these two assholes. But then if they were in jail, there would be no story for Death By Darkness is about Dumas’ revenge on these guys as well as some other townfolk he feels have persecuted him.
When the murders start, they are pretty graphic (gorehounds should love this) and the author has left the reader with some doubt as to who (or what) is commiting these crimes. Dumas keeps the mannequin, which he has named Olly, in the woods behind his house as his mother is too creeped out by the thing. And these woods do become almost another character – there are several creepy scenes where Chloe or Gerrit try to find Olly in the woods to get the mannequin away from Dumas. See, the mannequin has possessed Dumas and, as the story progresses, the reader is treated to just HOW deeply the mannequin has established control. And it’s quite unpleasant.
At one point, when Dumas’ mother has taken him to his psychiatrist to see what is going on with her son, Gerrit and Chloe do manage to find Olly and Gerrit takes the thing (did I mention it is life-size?) to his shop to do some research on where it could have come from and what the hell it is. At this point in the story, the reader is given some background on Malaysian folklore as it applies to these wooden dolls. Not sure how accurate this information is but the bottom line is that these dolls can either be used to protect children (Dumas may be 25 but he has the characteristics of someone younger) or they can be used for evil. Being a horror novel, protecting Dumas really isn’t Olly’s raison d’être.
The murders continue and get much more gruesome and by the end of the story, when all hell breaks loose, the reader is treated to shocks that they probably didn’t see coming.
On the whole, I really enjoyed Death by Darkness. The story really moves (I wanted to know what happened next and stayed up WAAYY too late reading in order to do so. On several occasions.) and Dumas’ character is one readers should feel sympathy towards – he has a terrible disease, schizophrenia, and then finds this ghastly mannequin which takes advantage of Dumas’ fragile mental state. There are some seriously creepy scenes where some of the townfolk are awakened in the middle of the night by something lurking outside their windows and there is a scene in the town cemetery…gross! I do wish the author could have written more about the town of Redlake itself – I never had a feel for the place (but then I’ve been spoiled by Stephen King, Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon who all really know how to establish a sense of place). There were also some rather annoying repetitions – I got it the first time that Chloe was a beautiful woman with a great body. Didn’t need to have my nose practically rubbed in that. The fact that the Harveys live in a two-story house didn’t need to be repeated ad nauseum. The bullies, Daniel and Ronny? Okay, we KNOW they’re the bad guys (and childish ones at that) – that fact didn’t need to be reinforced constantly. And there were a few instances of out-of-left field behavior – Chloe and the town’s detective, Okeene, having a fling right when things are really getting bad was the biggest WTF? (like horror films, I guess horror writers need to put in at least one gratuitous sex scene). I realize that this is Pennington’s second book and he does show some serious chops for the horror genre but he really needs a GOOD editor.
Other than these problems, the book itself is one I would recommend. You have a great setting: rural North Dakota in the winter. A unique character in Dumas. A plot that keeps you guessing and when was the last time you read about a demonic wooden mannequin? Or had people killed in such graphic and grotesque ways? Creepy, gruesome, isolated town in winter, creepy doll – what more could a horror fan ask for? Check it out!!
3 out of 5
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Beyond the Seventh Door DVD Review – No-Budget S.O.V. Canuxploitation At Its Finest!
Starring Lazar Rockwood, Bonnie Beck, Gary Freedman
Directed by B.D. Benedikt
Distributed by Severin Films/Intervision
Two people trapped within a labyrinthine complex. Booby traps. Rigged doors. Death lurking around every corner. And a mysterious voice communicating clues every step of the way via recorded tapes. No, this isn’t the latest Saw film but a Canuxploitation entry from the shot-on-video market, 1987’s Beyond the Seventh Door. Oozing ambition and bolstered by a truly bravado performance from newcomer Lazar Rockwood – a man who looks like the love child of Tommy Wiseau and Billy Drago – this no-budget Canadian shocker delivers just as many twists and turns as Lionsgate’s dead-horse franchise. The main difference being that instead of having to mutilate yours or someone else’s body, the protagonists here are forced to solve obtuse riddles in order to move on to the next room; failure means death. Intervision has been crushing it throughout 2017 – and this release may be the best yet.
Boris (Lazar Rockwood) is a career thief and recent ex-con who is trying to turn his life around when Wendy (Bonnie Beck), a former flame, comes back into his life. She now works for a rich paraplegic, Lord Breston (Gary Freedman), who lives in an actual castle just outside of town. Desperate for “one more job” and a big payday, Boris begs for a gig and Wendy delivers; the plan is for the two of them to break into the basement of Breston’s castle and steal whatever treasures he has socked away, all while her boss is busy entertaining guests at his costume party. The next night, the plan is enacted and the duo clandestinely slip into the castle’s lower level, when suddenly the door locks behind them and a tape recorder begins to play. Breston’s voice is heard, welcoming the thieves into his home and offering up a challenge: use scant clues (or sometimes, none at all) and uncover a way out of each of the six rooms linked together down here. Succeed and a briefcase of money awaits; fail and you die. Truly motivating.
Going into this film blind is my best recommendation, and so for that reason no other plot points will be revealed here. Besides, the real motivation for watching this movie is to witness the raw acting prowess of Lazar Rockwood. Glad in a denim jacket and rocking the ubiquitous ‘80s bandana headband, Rockwood has the delivery of a porno actor stammering lines between sex scenes. His accent is impenetrably thick and the range of his acting could fit within a matchbox, but dammit the man is weirdly magnetic on screen. He’s clearly throwing everything in his arsenal onto the screen with tremendous bravado. Modesty must be a scarce commodity when you have a name that would go perfectly alongside Dirk Diggler on an adult theater marquee in the ‘70s. My favorite line in the entire film is when Wendy is trying to solve the first clue, which has something to do with rings. When she’s rifling through possibilities and says, “Lord of the Rings?” Boris replies with, “Lord of the ring… who the hell is that guy?” said with equal parts confusion and annoyance. The kicker is viewers will believe that query could have come from either Boris or Lazar.
The rooms aren’t likely to impress viewers with their intricacy or set design, but each has a clever solution that is often a stretch to imagine our leads managing to solve within the allotted time. The clues provided by Lord Breston are esoteric and Boris isn’t exactly the erudite type, but working together with Wendy they are able to move ahead, often with mere seconds to spare. Evidence of past would-be thieves’ unlucky attempts are glimpsed, including one room where a body remains. NON-SPOILER: I completely expected the body to in actuality be Lord Breston, “checking up” on his unwanted guests much like John Kramer in Saw (2004), especially since you can clearly see the actor breathing, but this is not the case. Instead, the he’s-clearly-not-dead guy is played by a local eccentric, whose life is briefly chronicled in the bonus features.
Viewers will already be hooked on Beyond the Seventh Door by the time the climax arrives, but the final twists are what drive this S.O.V. thriller over the edge and into the cult territory it so richly deserves. It’s crazy to think this film went virtually unseen for years, being impossible to acquire on VHS and never receiving the proper home video release until now. Director B.D. Benedikt offers up further proof that strong ideas can be realized on any budget, and fans of films like Saw or Cube (1997) will enjoy this “store brand” version of those bigger budgeted hits.
The video quality review for every Intervision title could probably be a copy/paste job since each one is shot on video, always with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The quality here is comparable to a remastered VHS tape. There is a slight jerkiness to the opening but that passes quickly. Colors appear accurate and contrast is about as strong as can be. The picture is often soft which, again, is just something inherent to shooting on video. Film grain is minimized as much as possible; don’t expect a noisy mess just because this isn’t shot on film.
The English Dolby Digital 2.0 track plays with no obvious issues. Dialogue is clean and free from hissing and pops. The score is another awesomely cheesy ‘80s keyboard love-fest, with the three (!) composers – Michael Clive, Brock Fricker, and Philip Strong – getting plenty of mileage out of the main theme, which sounds like it would be the in-store demo default keyboard setting. No subtitles are included.
There is an audio commentary with writer/director B.D. Benedikt & actor Lazar Rockwood, moderated by Paul Corupe of Canuxploitation.com.
“Beyond Beyond the 7th Door features new interviews with Benedikt, Rockwood, and Corupe.
“The King of Cayenne” – Focusing on “legendary Toronto eccentric Ben Kerr”, a street performer who played the role of “dead guy in that one room”.
- Audio Commentary with Writer/Director BD Benedikt and Actor Lazar Rockwood, moderated by Paul Corupe (Canuxploitation.com)
- Beyond Beyond the 7th Door: Interviews with Writer/Director BD Benedikt, Actor Lazar Rockwood, and Canuxploitation.com’s Paul Corupe
- The King of Cayenne: An Appreciation of Legendary Toronto Eccentric Ben Kerr
Virtually lost for nearly three decades, Beyond the Seventh Door deserves a wider audience and Intervision’s DVD should bring it. The then-novel plot and sheer ambition should be enough to get most viewers hooked, but if not the Yugoslavian wonder Lazar Rockwood will handily have them glued to the screen.
The Crucifixion Review – Should’ve Left This One Nailed to the Cross
Starring Sophie Cookson, Corneliu Ulici, Ada Lupu
Directed by Xavier Gens
Claiming to be inspired by actual events, director Xavier Gens’ The Crucifixion forgoes the affecting shocks and awes, and instead beats its audience into the ground with a laundry-list of ho-hum dialogue and lesser-than-stellar instances…forget the priest, I need a friggin’ Red Bull.
A 2005 case is spotlighted, and it revolves around a psychotically damaged woman of the cloth (nun for all you laymen) who priests believed was inhabited by ol’ Satan himself. With one rogue priest in command who firmly believed that this was the work of something satanic, the nun was subject to a horrific exorcism in which she was chained to a cross and basically left to die, which ultimately resulted in the priest being stripped of his collar and rosary…how tragic. Enter an overzealous New York reporter (Cookson) who is intently focused upon traveling to Romania to get the scoop on the botched undertaking. After her arrival, the only point of view that seems to keep sticking with interviewees is that the man who sat close to the lord killed a helpless, innocent and stricken woman, that is until she meets up with another nun and a village priest – and their claims are of something much more sinister.
From there, the battle between good and evil rages…well, let me rephrase that: it doesn’t exactly “rage” – instead, it simmers but never boils. Unfortunately for those who came looking for some serious Father Karras action will more than likely be disappointed. The performances border on labored with cursory characters, and outside of some beautiful cinematography, this one failed to chew out of its five-point restraints.
I’d normally prattle on and on about this and that, just to keep my word limit at a bit of a stretch, but with this particular presentation, there just isn’t much to bore you all with (see what I just did there). Gens certainly had the right idea when constructing this film according to blueprints…but it’s like one of those pieces of Wal-Mart furniture that when you open the box, all you can find are the instructions that aren’t in your language – wing and a prayer…but we all know what prayers get you, don’t we, Father?
My advice to all who come seeking some hellacious activity – stick to The Exorcist and you’ll never be let down.
The Crucifixion is one of those films that needs the help of the man above in order to raise its faith, but I think he might have been out to lunch when this one came around.
Black Christmas Blu-ray Review – Making Its U.K. Debut From 101 Films
Starring Keir Dullea, Olivia Hussey, John Saxon, Art Hindle
Directed by Bob Clark
Distributed by 101 Films
There is only one Bob Clark Christmas movie I watch each year and it doesn’t feature Ralphie and his Red Ryder fantasies.
The endurance of Clark’s 1974 legendary slasher, Black Christmas, can be chalked up to a number of factors but the greatest is this: it is a disturbing film. I frequently come across horror message board topics asking for genuinely scary titles devoid of jump scares and excessive gore, but oddly enough Black Christmas doesn’t get many mentions. Maybe because it has been relegated to the “seasonal viewing only” heap? Regardless, fans will agree that the unsettling events portrayed don’t diminish with repeat viewings; if anything, subsequent watching serves to reinforce that it is a standout among a sea of imitators. The film is also a noted influence on John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) – arguably the granddaddy of slasher films – adding a bit of prestige to its legacy.
The girls of Pi Kappa Sig are throwing a holiday party before the Christmas break when, toward the end of the night, they receive a phone call from a man they’ve been calling “The Moaner”, who has a habit of calling and making unusual noises. Jess (Olivia Hussey) initially accepts the call but also allows her other sisters to listen in, prompting outspoken Barb (Margot Kidder) to jump on the line and goad this mystery man. She and Phyllis (Andrea Martin) argue over the possibility this guy may be more threatening than anyone realizes. Unbeknownst to the ladies partying downstairs, however, moments before the phone call came through an unidentified person (very likely this same caller) snuck up the side of the house and into the attic. And once the party wraps up that same person is found hiding in Claire’s (Lynne Griffin) closet, whereupon she is strangled and placed in a rocking chair in the attic.
The next day Claire’s father comes to the campus to meet her and is understandably stood up. He heads to the sorority house and reports her missing, at which point the girls and their housemother, Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman), agree to help him locate her. The file a report with the police, led by Lt. Fuller (John Saxon), and Jess also wrangles in Claire’s semi-boyfriend, Chris (Art Hindle), who helps bolster the search by raising hell at the station. Jess, meanwhile, is having problems of her own after confessing to her boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea), she is pregnant. She wants an abortion; he is vehemently against it. Claire’s absence grows more concerning when another missing girl is found dead in a nearby park, prompting the cops to ramp up their efforts. The girls are being picked off one by one as the unseen assailant remains hidden in the attic, continuing his phone calls that come after each murder. The cops suspect Peter may be a person of interest, as his interactions with Jess have become increasingly aggressive, but everyone is in for a shock when a tap on the line reveals the true source of the calls – they are coming from within the house.
With the film having been around for over forty years, and fans having been sold one “upgraded” home video version after the next, I suspect most readers are more interested in how Scream Factory’s Blu-ray stacks up against similar editions – which is basically my way of saying this review is a bit glib. For the uninitiated, however, let me say that I cannot overstate how exceptional Clark’s film is – never giving the killer an identity, an entire subplot concerning abortion, a palpable sense of grief for Claire’s father, a cast of interesting, unique people who don’t ever feel like archetypes, and a potentially downer of an ending. Some of his moviemaking tricks are brilliant, like the decision to create Billy’s voice from a combination of three different people (one a woman) and using interchangeable actors to portray the killer so you’re never quite sure who is in the attic. Carl Zittrer’s score is disorienting and minimal, making use of odd instrumentation to add extra unease; it also appears infrequently, giving the movie more of a real life quality. Black Christmas was a reasonable success upon release, more so commercially than critically, but time has been kind to this old gem and many now view it as an outright horror classic.
Hell, it was Elvis’ favorite Christmas movie.
Cult label 101 Films is giving the film its U.K. debut, presenting a transfer that is nearly identical to the remastered version Scream Factory released last year in North America. That 1.85:1 1080p picture is very likely the best this film can and will ever look. Black Christmas has a long home video history of looking very grainy, murky, dulled, and soft. I can’t say the new disc’s results are far off that mark but there are clear improvements. For one, grain has been resolved in a tighter field that looks less “noisy” and more “grindhouse-y”; do not expect an image clear as a crystal unicorn by any means. There is still softness to many faces and objects though detail looks far better here than it ever has before. Colors are more vibrant, too. Black levels run on the hazy side but they’re more stable than ever. The only noticeable difference between the Scream Factory and 101 Films versions are the latter is a touch brighter, allowing for a little more detail to filter through.
Audio is available via an English LPCM 5.1 surround sound track or a 2.0 stereo option. The multi-channel effort grants the unsettling soundtrack and Billy’s insane vocalizations more room to breathe, ratcheting up the creepiness thanks to the sense of immersion. Unlike the Scream Factory edition, the original mono track is not included.
Only a handful of extra features have been included, all of which can be found on the Scream Factory edition, too.
“Film and Furs: Remembering Black Christmas with Art Hindle” – Hindle, who still owns that jacket, talks about being a working actor in Canada when there wasn’t much work, as well as how he wound up auditioning for Clark for a different role.
“Victims and Virgins: Remembering Black Christmas with Lynne Griffin” – The actress who is most famous for having a plastic bag over her head tells a few tales from the set.
“Black Christmas Legacy” – This is a lot of interviews from the film’s actors and notable fans. I found it to be a bit tedious.
A handful of original TV and radio spots have been included, along with the “40th Anniversary Reunion Panel: Fan Expo Canada 2014”.
The package also includes a fold-out poster, reversible cover art, and a DVD copy.
- Film and Furs: Remembering Black Christmas with Art Hindle
- Victims and Virgins: Remembering Black Christmas with Lynne Griffin
- Black Christmas Legacy
- Original TV and Radio spots
- 40th Anniversary Reunion Panel: Fan Expo Canada 2014
This is an easy recommendation for purchase if you live in the U.K., since this is the film’s Blu-ray debut. Stateside readers may find this region-free version attractive due to the price, but know that it does contain significantly fewer extras than the in-print Scream Factory release. Either way, fans on both sides of the Atlantic have a version worth buying.
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