Starring Vincent Price, Patti Negri, Cooper Steve Anderson, David Zyler
Directed by James I. Nicholson, David Steensland
Distributed by Severin Films
In today’s film industry, thanks to current technology, making a movie is easier than ever – a blessing and a curse. Audiences have dozens of titles hitting a multitude of platforms each week, making it harder for filmgoers to keep their finger on the pulse of the market. Back in the good ol’ days of video store glory it was much simpler: either a title hit VHS after theatrical release, or it premiered directly to the format. It would be ignorant to say filmmaking was more D.I.Y. back then, but without the benefits (i.e. ease) that come with technology making a movie was no simplistic task. And “fix it in post” wasn’t such a common phrase because digital advancements weren’t there yet. This is why I have a soft spot for DTV horror, especially if it originated during my Wherehouse-roaming heydays. A bad film is a bad film, but a bad film that was clearly made with reverence for the craft is like a warm, tattered blanket – it might not be much to look at, but there is a certain comfort and charm to be appreciated.
Dark Harvest (1992) is a film that debuted to the format on which it was shot: video. Made on a shoestring budget, this is an example of passion being poured into a product because based on the location, acting, set design, and creature FX no one was ever going to be getting rich – or famous – off this thing. It’s the sort of film that would have been easy to dismiss or outright hate when it came out but now, with the rosy tint of nostalgia fully engaged, I found myself appreciating the lo-fi atmosphere more than ever – despite an avalanche of evident shortcomings.
After the standard horror opening, wherein a couple lost in the desert is killed by a strange scarecrow, we’re introduced to a group of twenty-somethings getting ready to head out into the heat for a hiking trek. Their van is unreliable and not long after setting out the fuel pump seizes, leaving the group stranded in the middle of nowhere. Not having the option of calling AAA or texting a friend for help, everyone decides to set out on foot a little earlier than expected, hoping to come across help along the way. Eventually they stop at a seemingly abandoned home and meet a crazy shotgun-wielding dude, who warns them his family is “all dead” and cautions them to be careful. They quickly leave. As they continue to hike under the blazing sun suddenly a scarecrow is spotted, hanging by his lonesome and looking awfully suspect.
The group settles in for the night, building a roaring fire around which Alex (Cooper Steve Anderson) regales them with an epic tale of “bodacious babes”. He’s the “m’lady” type who would’ve made a glorious mod on some white-knight subreddit. The next day the group is splintered as couples and singles begin to wander off on their own. Two of the girls come across a pair of redneck twin brothers, who do the expected and try to rape them. The rest have their own problems, though, as the scarecrows begin to appear and slash their way through our hapless hikers. Unbeknownst to all, they managed to stumble upon an old Indian burial ground… and you know how those things go when it comes to horror.
Writer/Director James I. Nicholson’s story doesn’t exactly make much sense – at all – but that didn’t entirely deter my enjoyment. There is no other way to put it: Dark Harvest is a bad film, filled with amateur-level talent in every department… and yet, for some strange reason I did not hate it with every fiber of my being. Maybe that’s because killer scarecrow movies are far and few between, so you take what you get. This film never reaches the upper echelon of the subgenre, alongside titles like Scarecrows (1988) and Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981), but it is such a bizarre and atypical entry that a modicum of credit is due. I found it best to ignore whatever attempts were being made at delivering a cohesive plot, content to soak up the camp factor.
The scarecrows, while inherently creepy in their own right, are unintentionally amusing, too. One of them is credited as “Gay Scarecrow”, while a woman plays another – and this is only of note because during a scene when the scarecrows are chasing down a man one seems to be – how to put this delicately in 2017 parlance? – well, running “like a girl” and struggling under the oppressively hot sun. It’s cute.
Paired up with Dark Harvest is a completely unrelated horror anthology called Escapes (1986), featuring the legendary Vincent Price. Although this film preceded a more well known and celebrated horror anthology, Jeff Burr’s From a Whisper to a Scream (1987), fans of that picture should not expect the same level of quality or involvement here. Price likely wrapped up all of his scenes before lunch was called on set, and his participation must have been secured on the strength of the dollar and not the quality of the script. This little-seen oddity was written and directed by David Steensland, who according to his IMDb went on to do nothing else. Ever. Anthology films are ostensibly a showcase for vignettes but there is usually some sense of cohesion throughout, yet Escapes has a particularly cobbled-together feel to it. This is likely because Steensland created his feature using a combination of existing shorts and new chapters. None of the segments work, but a few are commendable in their ability to capture a certain nostalgic feeling.
“Hobgoblin Bridge” shows the most promise, as a young boy is goaded into riding his BMX bike over a decrepit old bridge, having been told a hobgoblin lurks beneath. The boy hesitates to make the short trek, but the fear of being seen as weak and afraid is a powerful lure so with great trepidation he starts the short jaunt. His concerns materialize in the form of a tiny stop-motion hobgoblin, and a race to the “finish line” is underway. “A Little Fishy” is about a drunk who goes fishing in a lake and soon finds himself on the other end of a hook. “Coffee Break” is a weird one; with a strange old man insisting a tired truck driver stop off at a specific diner to try their coffee. It’s the kind of fever dream Dale Cooper might’ve had. “Who’s There?” concerns a few escaped lab experiments that play a seemingly deadly game with a man in the forest. “Jonah’s Dream” is the longest story – and you feel it – as an old prospector lady pans for gold and eventually makes the find of a lifetime thanks to her departed husband. “Think Twice” has a ruthless thief stealing an arcane magic crystal from a homeless man, intending to use it’s powers for evil, but as expected he gets his comeuppance in due time.
Price appears in the wraparound as a mailman who delivers a tape to a teen, who has no recollection of ordering it. In a meta move, the tape is called Escapes, starring Vincent Price, and after Price delivers an opening and closing monologue on the stories about to be seen our unwitting teen finds he may be an unexpected participant in the film he’s watching. Whoa.
While neither of these forgotten films is likely to attract even a minor cult following, there is plenty of charm to be found for old-school horror fans who appreciate the subject matter – scarecrows and anthologies – and are forgiving of glaringly clear shortcomings. I would much rather watch “crap” from the ‘80s and ‘90s than nearly any of the horrid DTV horror offerings hitting every streaming service today. Kudos to Severin Films for giving these relics their due even if they aren’t due very much.
Dark Harvest was shot on video, while Escapes is listed as being lensed with 35mm; regardless, both pictures look like VHS tapes transferred to DVD. And I was completely fine with that. Neither of these films should look any better than they do, and honestly if they did a massive part of that archaic charm would be lost. Each film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, perfectly replicating the VHS experience. The image on both looks like a clean – i.e. hasn’t been watched a thousand times – tape with the expected lack of fine detail, minimized grain, bold colors, etc. We all know how a VHS looks, right?
In terms of audio, both have an English Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Dark Harvest sounds compressed, with very little wiggle room for the soundfield. Dialogue is often marred by high desert winds, and the bugs at night are loud. But Rob Hopping’s score has a slight Pumpkinhead-style twang to it, which is nice. Escapes is equally poor, with Price’s opening bits sounding like they were recorded in an echo chamber. Once the film itself gets going things tighten up a bit, but expect results similar to Dark Harvest in that deficiencies often appear and you just have to accept them as part and parcel of making a no-budget feature.
Dark Harvest Bonus Features:
“Remembering Dark Harvest with Patti Negri” is a straightforward chat with one of the film’s actresses, who discusses a bit about her career before turning the chat to shooting the picture.
“Dan Weiss Remembers Dark Harvest via Skype” is another chat, covering the film’s production along with a few fond memories.
Escapes Bonus Features:
“Tom Naygrow on David Steensland” finds the film’s distributor talking about the kind of man Steensland was, with plenty of back patting and praise but not much in terms of meaty information.
- Remembering Dark Harvest with Patti Negri
- Dan Weiss Remembers Dark Harvest via Skype
- Tom Naygrow on David Steensland
The Housemaid Review – Love Makes the Ghost Grow Stronger
Written and directed by Derek Nguyen
Vietnamese horror films are something of a rarity due largely to pressure from the country’s law enforcement agencies that have warned filmmakers to steer clear of the genre in recent years. The country’s exposure to the industry is limited, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a handful of filmmakers out there that are passionate and determined to get their art out into the world. IFC Midnight has stepped up to the plate to shepherd writer/director Derek Nguyen’s period ghost thriller The Housemaid in hopes of getting it in front of American horror fans.
Aside from a few moments that delve into soap opera territory, Nguyen’s film is full of well-crafted scares and some surprisingly memorable scenes that sneak up at just the right times. For history buffs there’s also a lot of material to sink your teeth into dealing with French Colonial rule and mistreatment of the Vietnamese during the 1950’s. Abuse that, if you’re not careful, could lead to a vengeful spirit seeking atonement.
Desperate and exhausted after walking for miles, an orphaned woman named Linh (Kate) seeks refuge and employment as a housemaid at a large rubber plantation in 1953 French Indochina. Once hired, she learns of the dark history surrounding the property and how her mere presence has awakened an accursed spirit that wanders the surrounding woods and dark corners of the estate. Injured in battle, French officer Sebastien Laurent (Richaud) returns to preside over the manor and, unexpectedly, begins a dangerous love affair with Linh that stirs up an even darker evil.
Told in flashbacks, the abuse of workers reveals a long history of mistreatment that enshrouds the surrounding land in darkness and despair, providing ripe ground for a sinister spirit that continues to grow stronger. Once it’s revealed that the ghost has a long history with Laurent before her death, the reasons she begins to kill become more and more obvious as the death toll piles up. Using the real life history of indentured servants during Colonial rule, The Housemaid becomes more than just a self-contained ghost story, adding a good deal of depth to a story that could have just centered around a love triangle among Laurent, Linh, and the specter of Laurent’s dead wife.
Powered by desire to avenge tortured workers of the past and the anger fueled by seeing her husband in the embrace of a peasant girl, the apparition is frightening and eerily beautiful as she stalks her victims. One scene in particular showing her wielding an axe is the most indelible image to take away from the film, and other moments like it are what make The Housemaid a standout. The twisted sense of romance found in a suffering spirit scorned in death is the heart of the story even if the romance between the two living lovers winds up having more screen time.
The melodrama and underwhelming love scenes between Linh and Laurent are the least effective part of The Housemaid, revealing some of Nguyen’s limitations in providing dialogue and character moments that make us connect with these two characters as much as we do when the ghost is lurking around the frame. What does help to save the story is a well kept secret revealing a connection with the housemaid and the apparition.
Honestly, if this was an American genre film, the limitations seen in The Housemaid might cause more criticism, but seeing an emerging artist and his team out of Vietnam turn out a solid product like this leads me to highlight the good and champion the effort in hopes of encouraging more filmmakers to carry the flag. Ironically, the film is set for a U.S. remake in the near future.
The Housemaid hits select theaters, VOD, and digital platforms TODAY, February 16th.
Using the real life history of indentured servants during Colonial rule, The Housemaid becomes more than just a self-contained ghost story, adding a good deal of depth to a story that could have just centered around a love triangle.
Scorched Earth Review – Gina Carano Making Motherf**kers Pay In The Apocalypse
Starring Gina Carano, John Hannah, Ryan Robbins
Written by Bobby Mort and Kevin Leeson
Directed by Peter Howitt
Let me preface this review by stating right off the bat that I’m a huge Gina Carano fan, and will pretty much accept her in any role that she’s put in (are you going to tell her no), regardless of the structure and plausibility behind it, and while that might make me a tad-bit biased in my opinions, just accept it as that and nothing more. Now that I’ve professed my cinematic devotion to the woman, let’s dive headlong into her latest film, Scorched Earth.
Directed by Peter Howitt, the backdrop is an apocalyptic world brought on by the imminent disaster known as global warming, and the air has become toxic to intake, generally leaving inhabitants yacking up blood and other viscous liquids after a prolonged exposure, unless you’re one of the privileged that possesses a filter lined with powdered silver. Filters of water and the precious metal are in high demand, and only true offenders in this world still drive automobiles, effectively speeding up the destruction of what’s left of the planet. Carano plays Atticus Gage, a seriously stoic and tough-as-nails bounty hunter who is responsible for taking these “criminals” down, and her travels lead her to a compound jam-packed with bounties that will have her collecting riches until the end of time…but aren’t we at the end of time already? Anyway, Gage’s main opponent here is a man by the name of Thomas Jackson (Robbins) – acting as the leader of sorts to these futuristic baddies, the situation of Gage just stepping in and taking him out becomes a bit complicated when…oh, I’m not going to pork this one up for you all – you’ve got to invest the time into it just as I did, and trust me when I tell you that the film is pretty entertaining to peep.
While Carano’s acting still needs some refining, let there be no ever-loving mistake that this woman knows how to beat the shit out of people, and for all intents and purposes this will be the thing that carries her through many a picture. There are much larger roles in the future for Gina, and she’ll more than likely take over as a very big player in the industry – hey, I’m a gambling man, and I’ve done pretty well with my powers of prognostication. With that being said, the thing that does hold this picture back is the plot itself- it’s a bit stale and not overly showy, and when I look for a villain to oppose the hero, I’m wanting someone with at least a shred of a magnetic iota, and I just couldn’t latch onto anything with Robbins’ performance – his character desperately needed an injection of “bad-assness” and it hurt in that particular instance.
In the end of it all, I’d recommend Scorched Earth to fans of directionless, slam-bang wasteland pics with a touch of unrestrained violence…plus, Gina Carano is in it, so you can’t go wrong. If you’re not a fan of any of the above, feel free to skate on along to another piece of barren territory.
Looking to get your butt kicked in the apocalypse with extreme prejudice? Drive on up, and allow me to introduce you to someone who’ll be more than happy to oblige.
The Good Friend Book Review – A Slasher Story for the Facebook Generation
Written by Marcus Sabom
I’m not usually a big fan of murder mysteries, but Marcus Sabom’s novel The Good Friend has certainly done a lot to make me reconsider my stance on the genre. Sabom, who is currently turning the book into a film, appears to have a real gift when it comes to keeping the reader on the edge of their seat
Usually, if you were told that a book contains an ensemble cast of four central characters instead of one main protagonist, you’d probably lose interest right away because we tend to connect with singular point of view characters more than we do with ensembles. However, Sabom proved me wrong in this regard, because each of the four leading women in The Good Friend were such engaging people with such real problems that I never felt like there were too many characters and plot threads to keep track of.
To give a brief overview of our four principal players, we have Sarah, who wants to be in a meaningful relationship after her asshole boyfriend dumps her, Alana, a slightly older woman stuck in a loveless marriage with a manipulative husband who tries to turn her kids against her, Megan, who has to deal with crazy stalkers, and Rita, who is traumatized by a vengeful psycho named Caleb after he attempts to belittle and humiliate her.
With this being a book set in modern times, they naturally use social media to broadcast their problems to the world. Now, we all know about the dangers of chronicling every step of our lives on social media, but Sabom takes things to a whole other level. Because after the aforementioned women post about their troubles on Faceplace (which is basically Facebook, but with a name Mark Zuckerberg can’t take legal action against), a masked killer begins to permanently put an end to their man problems. Whoever the knife-wielding psycho is, he’s clearly a mutual friend of all the women, because he obviously looks at their posts.
One of the only male characters in The Good Friend who wasn’t a complete asshole was Detective Jack Miller, a cop investigating the case of the misandrous serial killer. Miller is described as occasional leaning towards antinatalism, the belief that people should stop reproducing because the human race should not continue to exist. I’ve also always believed that human beings should stop reproducing because we are beyond saving, so I’m glad that Sabom was able to tap into an area that deserves far more open discussion rather than being a social taboo.
The book itself is just under three-hundred pages in length and uses relatively large text, so most readers will probably get through the whole thing in about three days. Whilst the prose was certainly easy to digest, there were a number of errors and typos that would be painfully obstructive to most of us, the most obvious being that it confuses the phrase ‘couldn’t care less’ with ‘could care less’, which, as you know, means the exact opposite.
However, if you’re looking for a easy to digest murder mystery that will keep you guessing until the very end, The Good Friend is certainly an ideal recommendation. At the very least, the book should teach you not to make negative posts about people on Facebook or other social media sties, because a knife-wielding killer might be looking at your status.
An easy to digest slasher story that will keep you guessing until the very end, The Good Friend serves as a perfect reminder of the darker side of social media.
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