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Dracula 2000 (Blu-ray)

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Dracula 2000 (Blu-ray)Starring Gerard Butler, Jonny Lee Miller, Justine Waddell, Christopher Plummer, Jennifer Esposito, Jeri Ryan

Directed by Patrick Lussier

Distributed by Echo Bridge Entertainment


Dracula 2000 is a bit of a scatterbrained mess of a film. Its first act is rooted in the vein of a high-tech heist film, focusing on a group of professional thieves whose raid on the Van Helsing family vault inadvertently resurrects the legendary vampire for a modern day reign of terror. He’s played here by pre-300 Gerard Butler with a performance that never manages to leave much of an impression. Not because of anything the actor does or doesn’t do, but because director Patrick Lussier can never quite decide on a tone or focus for his narrative. There are moments throughout where this quasi-update of Bram Stoker’s novel feels genuinely inspired, and just about every one of them is undermined by a botched joke or a tired and telegraphed action sequence.

Act Two shifts the action to Mardi Gras and introduces our protagonist, young Mary Heller (Justine Waddell), a hapless Virgin (get it?) Megastore employee plagued by recurring nightmares of the titular menace. Naturally, Dracula takes a vested interest in her, stalking her from every shadow while simultaneously transforming New Orleans into a vampire breeding ground that includes three newly formed vampire brides and a whole swell of lackeys. Meanwhile, Christopher Plummer is the modern-day Van Helsing who arrives in town with an assistant (Jonny Lee Miller) in hot pursuit. Offering typical doses of exposition, these guys cut down any vagrant vampires left in Dracula’s wake with some nifty gadgetry and perhaps a bit too much know-how. Everything comes together in a third act plot reveal that offers a new spin on well-worn mythos, even if the film doesn’t bother to do much with it.

It never gels into a coherent success, but there’s some fun to be had throughout. Even if Lussier fails at maximizing Gerard Butler’s charisma, the actor seems to be having a ball in the central role; his Dracula is a delightfully evil member of the undead who enjoys tormenting his victims almost as much as drinking their blood. Whether he’s easing a hysteric victim into dying with dignity or seducing our heroine’s best friend in order to alienate her, Dracula is formidable villain here. The film never romanticizes him, which goes a long way in this day and age.

Dracula 2000 is also a very good-looking film, complete with lavish production values and impressive breadth. The globe-spanning narrative gives it an epic feel, and the period flashback sequence is equally impressive. It’s undone, though, by never giving us a character worth rooting for. Plummer is woefully underused as Dracula’s nemesis, Waddell is one-note and unremarkable and Miller is thoroughly bland in the role of reluctant apprentice. Couple that with a story that’s afraid to explore its most interesting aspects (far too much time is squandered on the opening heist), and you have a film that manages slight fun when it should’ve aimed higher. Dracula’s susceptibility to silver and crosses is explained in a plot twist that’s as inspired as anything in the vampire genre (ditto the surprise surrounding Van Helsing), but the majority of this feels like an afterthought. Instead, Lussier compromises his story with silly action sequences (apparently every vampire knows Kung Fu) and unfortunate CGI decapitations. Some may argue that it adds a bit of goofiness to the proceedings, but it comes at the expense of a really good movie that never quite finds its way to the surface.

But Lussier’s heart was in the right place, packing in some really great nods to Tod Browning’s original Universal film along the way. From Butler’s delivery of the ”I don’t drink …” line to the massive Bela Lugosi costume wandering the streets of New Orleans, Lussier relishes the material he’s working with and does his best to keep things fun and loose. He finds varying success along the way, but the lighthearted approach to the material makes it a hard film to outright dislike.

Echo Bridge Entertainment brings Dracula 2000 to 1080i high definition in a transfer that’s better than expected – with some reservations. First off, the film is inexcusably cropped from 2.35:1 to 1.78:1. There’s no real excuse for this across-the-board cropping that Echo Bridge seems to be employing. The draw of home video releases is to preserve the original vision of the director, but only the opening credits are in 2.35:1 here. A real pity. Other than that, Dracula 2000 looks pretty good. Colors don’t necessary pop – although it looks as if that’s by Lussier’s design – but detail is pretty good all around. Facial pores and stubble are plenty revealing, and backgrounds look nicely textured. Edge enhancement is occasionally visible but severe technical issues are kept away. Overall this is a solid image presentation that’s really only marred by the incorrect aspect ratio. It’s enough to make me wonder if Echo Bride isn’t somehow sourcing their Blu-rays from HD cable broadcasts.

Audio wise, things are also pretty good. As was the case with Hellraiser: Bloodline, Dracula 2000 features a DTS-HD MA 2.0 track that has no real issue other than it isn’t as enveloping as it should be. Dialogue is clear and well-separated, while sound FX pop with more aggression than expected. Hopefully Echo Bridge will outfit its next crop of discs with 5.1 audio, as releasing newer movies with lesser tracks than what accompanied them in theaters is inexcusable – though this remains a more than adequate way to experience the film for curious parties.

Sadly, none of the supplementary material from the Dimension DVD survived the trip to high definition. We’re left with a movie-only presentation in which the greatest allure is being available for under $10 bucks. Fans will most likely enjoy the upgraded picture quality – although the lack of extras is a bit of a downer. Dracula 2000 isn’t going to win any awards for reference-quality Blu-ray, but high definition junkies with TV sets over 40” may enjoy the stable image quality offered here. Providing the cropped picture isn’t a deal-breaker.

Film

3 out of 5

Special Features

0 out of 5

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Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters Review – A Timid Step Towards a Frightening Possibility

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Starring Mamoru Miyano, Takahiro Sakurai, Kana Hanazawa, Yuki Kaji, Tomokazu Sugita

Directed by Kobun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Seshita


The Godzilla series is the longest-running franchise in cinema history. With over 30 films over a 60+ year career, the famous kaiju has appeared in video games, comic books, TV shows, and more, cementing its place as one of the most recognizable cultural icons in the past 100 years. With Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, the titular beast makes its foray into the world of anime in this first film in a proposed trilogy. While there are moments that are genuinely thrilling, the film unfortunately fails to capture the imagination and wonder that is at its fingertips.

The story is quite simple: Earth is under attack by swarms of various kaiju who are wreaking havoc across the planet. Entire cities are being destroyed when Godzilla appears to vanquish humanity’s foes. Unfortunately, the King of the Monsters isn’t really there to help humans and its rampage continues until a race of alien beings arrive at Earth asking for a place to stay in exchange for defeating Godzilla. When they are unable to do that, the remaining humans board a giant spaceship to venture off into space in search of a new home only to come back some 20 years later, nearly 20,000 years later by Earth time (think Interstellar logic), to search for resources and, possibly, a planet that will welcome them once again. However, Godzilla is still around and isn’t keen on sharing.

The main character of the film is Haruo Sakaki, a young man who begins the film by nearly following through on a suicide bomber terrorist act that is meant to call attention to humanity’s loss of vision and failure to fulfill their mission of finding a suitable home for the remaining survivors. Even though he is accosted and jailed for this act, he is eventually freed when people realize that his lifelong passion of killing Godzilla is the foundation for research he’s done in finding a way to take down the creature…a plan that just might work. The other characters are so forgettable that I forgot their names during the film.

From there, the film essentially pivots into following a massive team of volunteers who land on Earth’s surface to lay a trap for Godzilla in order to destroy it. Since this is Earth 20,000 years after they left, the flora and fauna have evolved and changed so radically that the team have no idea what to expect or how to react, so caution is a must.

The problem with this is that while the characters have to be cautious, the film doesn’t nor should it. The movie has the chance to explore the wealth of imaginative opportunities at its fingertips and yet does almost everything it can to avoid doing just that. The color scheme is flat and uninteresting. The character movements lack smoothness and the action sequences fall victim to shaky cam syndrome. There are a few mentions of some of the changes that have taken place on the planet, such as razor sharp plants, but they’re so incidental or offhand that it feels like no one making the film has any interest in seeing anything other than man against beast.

Speaking of this dynamic, the action sequences are quite entertaining but also feel somewhat reserved. Godzilla barely moves and much of the destruction levied against the humans is seen from a distance, apart from an attack on a military outpost by dragon-like creatures. For nearly the entire film, I found myself thinking, “I’m okay with this but that’s about it.

The brightest moment in the film are the last few minutes and I won’t spoil what happens. Suffice it to say that it definitely has me interested in the second and third films but I really hope that this new world will be explored further in those entries. Otherwise, we’ve got a fascinating foundation that will be squandered.

  • Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters
2.0

Summary

Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters is a bland entry in a trilogy that has great potential. For a first course, there’s a distinct lack of flavor or complexity. The final minutes are the only saving grace and I hope that the second and third films make use of that grand wonder.

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Satan’s Cheerleaders Blu-ray Review – Sacrifice This Snoozer At The Altar!

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Starring Jack Kruschen, John Ireland, Yvonne De Carlo, Jacqueline Cole

Directed by Greydon Clark

Distributed by VCI


The ‘70s. Satanism. Sultry cheerleaders. Sex appeal. With these tools nearly any low-budget filmmaker should be able to turn out something that is, at the very least, entertaining. The last thing a viewer expects when tuning in to a film called Satan’s Cheerleaders (1977) is to be bored to tears. But that is exactly the reaction I had while watching director Greydon Clark’s wannabe cult comedy. Even on a visual level this film can’t be saved, and it was shot by Dean Cundey! No, unfortunately there isn’t a cinematic element in the world that can overcome a roster of bad actors and a storyline so poorly constructed it plays like it was written on the day. The only saving grace, minor as it may be, is the casting of John Ireland as Sheriff B.L. Bubb (cute), a hard-nosed shitkicker who adds all the gravitas he can muster. But a watchable feature cannot be built upon the back of a single co-star, as every grueling minute of Satan’s Cheerleaders proves.

The cheerleaders and jocks of Benedict High School rule the campus, doing what they want, when they want, with little else on their minds except for The Big Game. Their belittling attitudes rub school janitor (and stuttering dimwit) Billy (Jack Kruschen) the wrong way. What they don’t know is Billy is (somehow) the head of a local Satanic cult, and he plans to place a curse on the clothes (really) of the cheerleaders so they… suck at cheerleading? Maybe they’ll somehow cause the jocks to lose the big game? When Billy isn’t busy plotting his cursed plans, he spies on the girls in the locker room via a hidden grate in the wall. I guess he doesn’t think being a sexual “prevert” is fair trade enough; might as well damn them all, too. Billy has his own plans to kidnap the girls, for his Lord and Master Satan, and he succeeds with ease when the girls’ van breaks down on the highway; he simply offers them a ride and they all pile in. But when Ms. Johnson (Jacqueline Cole) gets hip to his plan the two tussle in the front seat and Billy winds up having a heart attack.

The squad runs off in search of help, coming across the office of Sheriff B.L. Bubb (John Ireland), who, as the name implies, may be a legit Satanist. Bubb invites the girls inside, where they meet his wife, Emmy (Yvonne De Carlo), High Priestess of their quaint little satanic chapter. While the girls get acquainted with Emmy, Bubb runs off to find Billy, who isn’t actually dead. Wait, scratch that, Bubb just killed him for… some reason. The girls figure out things aren’t so rosy here at the Bubb estate, so they hatch an escape plan and most make it to the forest. The few that are left behind just kinda hang out for the rest of the film. Very little of substance happens, and the pacing moves from “glacial” to “permafrost”, before a semi-psychedelic ending arrives way too late.

“Haphazard” is one of many damning terms I can think of when trying to make sense of this film. The poster says the film is “Funnier Than The Omen… Scarier Than Silent Movie” which, objectively, is a true statement, though this film couldn’t hope to be in the same league as any of the sequels to The Omen (1976) let alone the original. It is a terminal bore. Every attempt at humor is aimed at the lowest common denominator – and even those jokes miss by a wide berth. True horror doesn’t even exist in this universe. The best I can say is some of the sequences where Satan is supposedly present utilize a trippy color-filled psychedelic shooting style, but it isn’t anything novel enough to warrant a recommendation. Hell, it only happens, like, twice anyway. The rest of the film is spent listening to these simple-minded sideline sirens chirp away, dulling the enthusiasm of viewers with every word.

A twist ending that isn’t much of a twist at all is the final groan for this lukewarm love letter to Lucifer. None of the actors seem like they know what the hell to be doing, and who can blame them with material like this? I had hoped for some sort of fun romp with pompoms and pentagram, like Jack Hill’s Swinging Cheerleaders (1974) for the Satanic set, but Clark provides little more than workmanlike direction; even Cundey’s cinematography is nothing to want on a resume.

Viewers have the option of watching either a “Restored” or “Original Transfer” version of the 1.78:1 1080p picture. Honestly, I didn’t find a ton of difference between the two, though the edge likely goes to the restored version since the title implies work has been done to make it look better. Colors are accurate but a little bland, and definition just never rises above slightly average. Film grain starts off heavy but manages to smooth out later on. Very little about the picture is emblematic of HD but given the roots this is probably the best it could ever hope to look.

Audio comes in the form of an English LPCM 2.0 track. The soundtrack sounds like it was lifted from a porno, while other tracks are clearly library music. Dialogue never has any obvious issues and sounds clear throughout. Subtitles are available in English SDH.

There are two audio commentary tracks; one, with director Greydon Clark; two, with David De Cocteau and David Del Valle.

A photo gallery, with images in HD, is also included.

Special Features:

  • Audio commentary with director Greydon Clark
  • Audio commentary with filmmakers David De Cocteau & David Del Valle
  • Photo gallery
  • Satan's Cheerleaders
  • Special Features
1.3

Summary

Although the title is enough to reel in curious viewers, the reality is “Satan’s Cheerleaders” are a defunct bunch with little spirit and no excitement. The ’70s produced plenty of classic satanic cinema and this definitely ain’t it.

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A Demon Within Review – Familiar Possession Beats To A Dreary Tune

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Starring Charlene Amoia, Clint Hummel, Patricia Ashley, Michael Ehlers

Directed by Ayush Banker and Justin LaReau


Possession flicks don’t often hold a long shelf life in the horror community, with Ayush Banker and Justin LaReau’s A Demon Within suggesting why. Hands emerging from the darkness, exorcisms, anxious priests – you’ll see it all again as you’ve seen it before. Early scenes glimmer a polish unlike equal indie products, but that’s just the devil playing tricks on you. Once the film’s main satanic takeover begins, cursing teens and stony glares become the been-here-before norm. Low-budget filmmaking isn’t an immediate detractor like some high-society snobs may believe, yet it’s surely no excuse either. Today’s review being an example of both mindsets.

Charlene Amoia stars as Julia Larsen, a divorcee who moves into Crestwick, Illinois looking for a clean start with daughter Charlotte (Patricia Ashley). Their dusty toucher-upper is a quaint, aged farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, complete with electrical issues and weird noises at night. Nothing to worry about, right? Julia’s focus is better directed towards town doctor Jeremy Miller (Clint Hummel), who she immediately hits it off with (after almost hitting *him* with a car). She’s eating stir-fry at his place one night, all things going well, and that’s when it happens – Charlotte is possessed by an evil force who enacts its sinister plan. Charlotte may physically be present, but only as a vessel for “Nefas.”

Without hesitation, A Demon Within lays predictable groundwork as small-town haunters have for decades. Charlotte’s new home is already infested with a spiritual squatter, Jeremy bottles (and drinks down) a blemished past that’s exposed too late, there’s plenty of characters sneakin’ up on one another – never with much “oomph.” Charlotte’s teeny-bopper voice drops to truck-driver deep at the height of possession, but it’s a distracting sound design that alone strikes little fear. Serious scares are attempted, be it a pitch-black basement slashing or Charlotte’s hide-and-seek pounce, just never delivered. An inconsequential failure to unite tone and atmosphere.

Performances are…well…rigid, to say the least. Amoia and Ashley strike a surprisingly likable chemistry as living humans, but once Ashley goes demonic, chemistry bottoms out. The way A Demon Within positions Charlotte when possessed is utterly dull and undefined; Ashley playing an unenthusiastic harbinger of death. It’s bad enough that Hummel’s tortured doctor masters the emotional range of Mona Lisa and the town’s pastor is hardly a scene stealer – but to have a demon be so vanilla (without a side of nuts, no less)? Getting past the limited lighting and Charlotte’s manly demon voice is hard enough, let alone her mostly relenting threats.

Making matters worse, the film’s third act is hardly a religious salvation that flows with ease. I had more fun watching Julia stammer over pizza and beers with Jeremy than their final fight against ghastly hellspawns. The truths of Jeremy’s past leak out in flashback form, only to reveal his stubborn inability to comprehend one’s own possession encounter in the very house Julia bought (useful information, eh?). The local priest shows up in the nick of time, a few cutaway jolts attempt cheap thrills, and some holy water mucks up an old painting – but again, minimal notability. Er…not even minimal? Shaky last-minute framing makes it hard to even notice the touch-ups to Charlotte’s face that signify her unholy imprisonment, even worse than blackened CGI mists.

A Demon Within tries, fumbles, and tries some more, but it’s best treated as a reminder of better exorcism stories that exist elsewhere. Even something like The Vatican Tapes is an improvement over this possessive redundancy, hokier than the honky-tonk love song that plays atop a pizza-chain flirt scene. There’s something to be said about getting out and creating original horror, but herein lies the problem – this ain’t *that* original. With harsher scares and tension, such a fate could be ignored. As-is? It’s hard to see past anything more than a January release placeholder.

  • A Demon Within
2.0

Summary

A Demon Within is a seen-it-before possession thriller that brings nothing new to the conversation. Not the worst, but also not a “hidden secret.”

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