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AFM Wrap-Up! The Sights! The Sounds! The Scares!

Horror has always dominated the American Film Market and 2009 was no exception. And while there was a considerable shortage of titles this year, the overall quality was a huge step up from previous AFMs. I guess there’s something to be said for the lack of over-saturation.

The Dread Central crew was on hand through most of the week and caught several great screenings. Special thanks to all the exhibitors who let us see their latest offerings …

SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD

Survival of the DeadThe sixth entry in George A. Romero’s zombie series needs no introduction. But Voltage Pictures remains the least friendly exhibitor at AFM, shunning the very same genre press that has put them on the map. Despite Dread Central’s unwavering devotion to Romero and the fact that our own Uncle Creepy plays a member of the living dead, they were determined to keep us out of the screening. But I snuck in anyway.

While it doesn’t hold a candle to the Night-Dawn-Day cycle, Romero’s latest is still a smart and fun entry that fits perfectly into the living dead canon while feeling different than any of the films that preceded it. This is a post-apocalyptic Western pitting the Hatfields against the McCoys (or in this case, the O’Flynns against the Muldoons) as two families battle it out for native island supremacy. Romero still has a few things left to say about our society, as well as several more gory gags up his sleeve, which should please long-time fans (especially after Diary’s mixed reception).

4 out of 5

BURNING BRIGHT

A surly stepfather (Garret Dillahunt) has had enough of his stepdaughter and autistic stepson so he does what anyone would do: set loose a ravenous circus tiger in their home. Trapped inside during a terrible hurricane, the two stepkids must find a way to survive the night before they become tiger chow.

Believe it or not, Burning Bright isn’t anywhere near as ridiculous as it sounds and actually manages to build several intense set-pieces. It’s a pretty conventional entry in the survivalist/nature-run-amok subgenre, but it’s well executed enough and gets major props by forgoing CGI to use a real-life tiger in the carnage scenes.

3 1/2 out of 5

JU-ON: WHITE GHOST/JU-ON: BLACK GHOST

The Ju-On series returns to its V-cinema roots with two hour-long shot-on-video movies (this time without series creator Takashi Shimizu). Each film unfolds in vignette style with a new curse, new family, new house, and new ghosts. More J-horror shenanigans ensue.

While there’s nothing particularly new about these installments, there’s still some creepy fun to be had. With plenty of bizarre ideas (including a basketball-wielding granny ghost) and memorable set-pieces (including one of the most insane exorcisms ever shot), the results are never boring, and it’s still kind of fun to piece together the fragmented puzzle pieces. At the very least, these are head and shoulders above the American Grudge films. Even though Shimizu is completely absent, it makes little difference since these new directors imitate his style perfectly. Still, these are for die-hard Ju-On fans only.

3 1/2 out of 5

THE HOLE

Joe Dante returns to deliver his usual mayhem in glorious 3D! When two brothers move into a new house with their single mom, they quickly discover a strange bottomless hole in their basement. Before long, all hell breaks loose when mysterious apparitions begin to emerge and terrorize them.

The Hole is a fun throwback to 80’s kid-friendly horror films like The Gate, The Monster Squad, and Dante’s earlier films, which managed to throw some bite behind its PG-rated scares. It’s a fun ninety-minute ride with some great moments (if the Poltergeist clown creeped you out, get ready!), but frankly, I expected something a little more wild and crazy from Dante after all these years – particularly during the climax. Not quite the return to form we wanted from one of our favorite madmen, but it’ll do.

3 1/2 out of 5

REC 2

REC 2Picking up minutes after the first film, REC 2 follows a SWAT team and one ass-kicking priest as they venture into the infected apartment building to put a stop to the zombie-like outbreak. Returning directors Paco Plaza and Jaume Balaguero jump right into the Aliens formula by ramping up the action and expanding the mythology. Nope, this isn’t some mere virus (take that, Quarantine!) but a full-fledged plague of demonic possession.

REC 2 plays like The Exorcist crossed with a first-person shooter and improves on its predecessor in every way: The set-pieces are bigger, the kills more insane, and the pacing tighter. This is one white-knuckled rollercoaster ride that will be remembered as one of the stronger horror sequels out there.

4 1/2 out of 5

RAMPAGE

The latest film from the notorious Uwe Boll follows Bill (Brendan Fletcher), a jobless twenty-something living with his parents, who becomes disillusioned with the state of the world and decides to solve things the only way he knows how: suiting up with Kevlar and massacring everyone in his hometown. After bombing the local police precinct, we follow Bill through the streets and shops as he guns down every innocent (and not-so-innocent) person in sight.

After years of mockery and criticism, it’s finally happened: Uwe Boll has made a good movie. Rampage is not just a mere step up from his usual brand of video game dreck, it’s a truly compelling and ballsy piece of confrontational cinema with an honest-to-God statement and unforgettable ultra-violence. It’s not perfect: There’s a lot of awkward overlapping improv and some choppy editing, but Boll crafts a truly unsettling, visceral, and darkly entertaining experience anchored by a great lead performance by Fletcher (who perfectly echoes the cold-blooded nature of the Columbine killers). This is the film Elephant and Falling Down should’ve been. Boll bashers are going to have to find a new whipping boy. Hats off to Uwe for making a hard-edged and real piece of cinema that can’t be ignored.

4 out of 5

THE REEDS

One of the many “friends get picked off in an isolated location” horror movies that flood AFM year after year. In this British import, a group of old chums decide to have a party on a small boat in the middle of a desolate swamp (how exciting!) but quickly discover that there is something lurking among the reeds.

The Reeds is purely a conventional, by-the-numbers ghost story that hints at something greater but never goes there. It’s well shot with decent performances and a nice score but fails to make much of an impression in the end.

2 1/2 out of 5

MY SON, MY SON WHAT HAVE YE DONE

Director Werner Herzog and co-producer David Lynch deliver this digital avant-garde art house flick about a disturbed man (Michael Shannon) who stabs his mother with an antique sword and engages in a face-off with the local police. With the help of friends and eyewitnesses, the authorities (led by Willam Dafoe) slowly piece back the man’s odd back story with a local theatre troupe.

As a hardcore fan of both Lynch and Herzog, this was probably my most anticipated film of the year. The end result is a film that’s both engaging and hard to like. The performances, pacing, and offbeat art house ticks are wildly all over the map with moments that are both brilliantly complex and frustratingly pretentious. It’s certainly not a film for everyone. That said, Herzog continues his fascination with madmen and nature with Shannon delivering another great performance, and seeing Brad Dourif’s pet ostrich eat Udo Kier’s glasses (!) is worth the price of admission alone.

3 out of 5

Andrew Kasch

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Steve Barton

You're such an inspiration for the ways that I will never, ever choose to be.