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Masters of Horror: Dance of the Dead (Television)

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Episode 3

Starring Jonathan Tucker, Jessica Lowndes, Robert Englund

Directed by Tobe Hooper

Airdate: November 11, 2005


This is Hooper at his best. Gratuitous, nihilistic, and unhinged. Disengaged from whatever power that has been holding him back for so many years. Granted, Toolbox Murders was a step in the right direction after fumbling with blanks like Crocodile and The Mangler in the last decade but “Dance of the Dead” reinvigorates the Texas Chainsaw Massacre-lovin’ soul with renewed hope that Hooper hasn’t, as so many say, “lost it.” Based on a short story by Richard Matheson and adapted by his son, Richard Christian Matheson, if Stuart Gordon’s “Dreams in the Witch House” was a subtle mind-screw of a Masters entry, then “Dance of the Dead” is its boisterous, forceful opposite: an agitated, post-apocalyptic splatter punk resurrection that jitters and shakes along the line of indecency with Hooper proudly manipulating the strings. And thankfully there’s no sign of anyone with a pair of scissors in sight to ruin the show.

Similar to Coscarelli’s “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road,” this entry boasts a cracked narrative structure that teases us with nightmarish events that occurred in the past while bombarding our senses — and sensibilities — with a story in the present that introduces us to seventeen-year-old Peggy (played by the drop-dead beautiful Jessica Lowndes). She’s a curious, if somewhat sheltered, girl living in a post-World War III ravaged America. The town she lives in appears to be a frightened little community where abandoned cars litter the streets and reports of the rising death toll in the country come via grim radio broadcasts, but her mother’s diner remains open to those who can afford the food. It’s a bizarro slice of Norman Rockwell heaven until she meets a boy, Jak (the TCM remake’s Jonathan Tucker), a mascara-wearing, respectable biker boy who’s involved in a mean bit o’ business with his annoying partner only to make enough cash to survive.

One evening Jak whisks Peggy away to the seedy town of Muskeet. There’s a different smell in the air lingering around this place, and the dregs run rampant; without a protector Peggy would surely be devouredm and Tucker’s Jak is a lean, swift, likable anti-hero. This rugged Romeo promptly introduces his gal to the local dive, The Doom Room, which is headed up by a man known only as the MC. Robert Englund creeps into the role as only Robert Englund can, grinding every line of dialogue with a wink, a sneer, and not to mention one helluva hair style. (A moment I’m fond of: The MC recovers from a coughing fit in which he spits a mouthful of blood into a jar before his audience with the line, “Since we run an upscale establishment here…” ) He’s a necro-horny Steve Rubell who takes delight in riling up his punk rock/Goth customers, especially with his main attraction, the Dance of the Dead.

Going much further would spoil the fun, so I’ll halt right there. There’s so much that’s so right about “Dance of the Dead” that it’s hard to pinpoint who to thank, so I’ll doll out kudos to both Hooper and scribe Richard Christian Matheson. The latter’s script runs the risk of information overload, but he ultimately delivers a tale that’s damn tight. It’s hard to dig on where it’s going, but once a few key details are introduced…man, it’s a trip. The characters are a unique bunch; Matheson’s dialogue has a cool, modern noir freshness to it; and it’s painfully evident the director at the helm recognizes the strength of the material, so he assuredly pushes it to limits that are, let’s just say, prime Hooper. Garbage men pull up to a dumpster and toss a few writhing, naked bodies inside. Later, Englund has some fun with his undead talent that paints a whole new view of the “casting couch.” And a scene worthy enough to freeze your very bone marrow — involving the havoc wreaked at a children’s party – -reminds us that every good allegory often has to have a harsh air of realism.

It’s worth noting that former Smashing Pumpkin’s frontman, Billy Corgan, scored this episode, his contribution a sly and subtle mix that works in all of those metal tunes that are now available on the Masters of Horror two-disc CD (I was wondering where they were all going to fit in). I’d be remiss not to mention Jon Joffin’s photography once again. More stellar work here. There’s a “fluttering image” technique Joffin and Hooper implement at times throughout “Dance” that takes some getting used to. It does keep you on your toes, however, as does the episode as a whole, and that’s the Hooper we all know and love.


5 out of 5 Mugs O’ Blood

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Ruby Blu-ray Review – ’70s Drive-In Psychic Shocker From VCI

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Starrign Piper Laurie, Janit Baldwin, Stuart Whitman, Roger Davis

Written by George Edwards and Barry Schneider

Directed by Curtis Harrington

Distributed by VCI Entertainment


Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and director Curtis Harrington’s Ruby (1977) is paying it to a few of the ‘70s most notable horror films. Cribbing liberally from such better pictures as The Exorcist (1973) and Carrie (1976), this is a picture that could have worked well despite being a pastiche because it begins with a decent setup and the elements for something interesting are present. Unfortunately, nothing ever gels like it has to and Ruby loses focus early on, dashing from one death scene to the next and allowing for little salient connective tissue to tie it all together. The big mystery presented early on should be easy enough for horror fans to deduce, and the film never brings the scare factor. A few of the deaths are novel in their inventiveness, especially the use of the drive-in theater surroundings, but a couple kills do not a movie make and Ruby spends too much time middling and being weird to be of any note.

Florida, 1935. Low level mobster Nicky Rocco (Sal Vacchio) is gunned down by a lake as his pregnant girlfriend Ruby watches on in horror. Just before dying, Nicky swears vengeance on whoever did this to him. Cut to sixteen years later and Ruby (Piper Laurie) runs a drive-in movie theater and lives in a home nearby with her daughter, Leslie (Janit Baldwin). Ruby is a tough broad, quick-witted and foul-mouthed; able to hold her own with the guys. But those guys are beginning to vanish one by one as the bodies start piling up at the theater. Ruby suspects there’s something off with Leslie, so she brings in her own psychic doctor, Dr. Paul Keller (Roger Davis), to examine her daughter. Leslie, as it turns out, is acting as a conduit for the wayward soul of Nicky, who blames Ruby for his ultimate demise. Possessed and programmed for vengeance, Leslie and Ruby have an all-out battle in a search for the truth.

The second half of this film is where things go right off the rails, with scenes aping The Exorcist so much it feels like a knock-off. This isn’t always such a bad thing because knock-offs of better films can always turn out great (see: most of the post-Gremlins little creature features), but Ruby never makes a clear case for introducing these fantastical elements in the third act. This is a story that could have worked better by exercising restraint, playing closer to something like J.D.’s Revenge (1976), a similar gangster-soul-out-for-justice film, than a wild, possessed ride.

What does work, for me, are the drive-in theater setting (I’m a sucker for movies that also involve the craft of film in some way) and the kills, a few of which make great use of the theatrical setting to deliver fitting fatalities. One employee winds up stuffed into a soda machine, with his blood getting pumped into a dark, syrupy drink and served up to guests. Another meets his end on the screen, impaled by the pole on which car speakers are kept. Harrington does inject this picture with a strong sense of atmosphere, too. The locale is woodsy and feels remote; the countryside is dark and foggy, the perfect setting for something grim to occur. None of these elements are enough to fully save the feature, though they do bring enough production value to ease to burden of a poor script.

Personally, I’m a sucker for almost any horror from bygone eras – especially the ‘70s and ‘80s – so, deficiencies aside, Ruby is still worth a spin if you enjoy reveling in this particular era. This is far from an unheralded gem or little-seen treasure, but it does, at the least, rip-off good pictures in spectacularly bad fashion.

This is a rough film and every bit of work done for the 2K restoration still can’t do much to polish it up any better. First, a note: there is a video drop-out for approximately ten seconds around the 21-minute mark. VCI is offering replacement discs via their Facebook page, so check there for further details. Future copies will be corrected, and those should already be on “shelves” now, so consider this an FYI. The 1.85:1 1080p image is frequently soft and murky, darkly shot and poorly lit. Shadow detail is virtually non-existent. The color temperature looks a bit on the warm side. Film grain is noisy and occasionally problematic.

An English LPCM 2.0 track carries a clean & balanced audio experience. Voices sound a touch muffled at times, though nothing too severe. The murders scenes are accompanied by creepy ambient sounds, adding a slight chill. The film’s closing theme song is awesome cheese that must be heard. Subtitles are available in English SDH.

There are two audio commentary tracks; the first, with David Del Valle and Nathaniel Bell; the second, with Curtis Harrington and Piper Laurie.

The film’s original trailer is included in HD.

Also included are a few interviews with Harrington, conducted by David Del Valle, including “2001 David Del Valle Interview with Curtis Harrington”, and “Sinister Image Episode Vol. 1 & Vol. 2: David Del Valle Archival Interview with Curtis Harrington”.

Special Features:

  • NEW 2K RESTORATION from the original camera negative
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Audio Commentary with Director Curtis Harrington & Actress Piper Laurie
  • New Audio Commentary with David Del Valle and Curtis Harrington historian Nate Bell
  • Two Interviews with Curtis Harrington by Film Critic David Del Valle
  • Photo Gallery
  • Optional English SDH subtitles
  • Ruby
  • Special Features
2.3

Summary

A simple plot becomes wildly unfocused but Ruby does have intermittent camp value fans of ’70s horror cinema should dig. VCI’s Blu-ray is no beauty by any means, though it’s likely to be the best this poorly-shot feature will get.

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The Midnight Man Review – Don’t Hate The Game, Hate The Players

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Starring Lin Shaye, Robert Englund, Grayson Gabriel, Emily Haine, Gabrielle Haugh, Summer H. Howell, Louise Linton

Written by Travis Zariwny

Directed by Travis Zariwny


Travis Zariwny’s The Midnight Man is largely a robotic hide-and-seek slog, yet if dissected in butchered chunks, smaller bites range from delicious destruction to utterly incompetent character work. Judging by the bloodthirsty opening sequence alone, you’d think Zariwny is about to blow our morality-siding minds. A sad misconception, I’m afraid. After our hopes skyrocket, mechanical plot devices are pinned to a storyboard with the utmost lack of exploration. The Midnight Man’s game is afoot, but these players would barely compete against an opponent crafted from brick and mortar. Can someone calculate a handicap for them, please?

Gabrielle Haugh stars as Alex Luster, a caring granddaughter to Nana Anna (Lin Shaye). One night, upon the request of her not-always-there relative, Alex rummages through attic trunks for a silver-backed hand mirror. Instead she finds a nondescript wrapped box with what appears to be a game inside. Her crush Miles (Grayson Gabriel) has arrived by now, and after an incident where Anna requires medical attention from house-call doctor Harding (Robert Englund), the two friends begin playing whatever it was that caused Anna to screech in disapproval. You know, the only rational decision.

At the risk of sounding like a smug CinemaSins video, The Midnight Man would surely bomb any horror IQ test. Zariwny’s *first* piece of introduced information after discovering Midnight Man’s altar is quite simple – DANGER. DO NOT PLAY. IT JUST CAUSED A WOMAN TO FAINT. Nevertheless, our braindead sheeple follow careful rules to summon Mr. Midnight Man into their house – because, as horror movies have proven, tempting occult fates is buckets of fun! At least the characters don’t confess romantic feelings and makeout while another friend who joins the game late – “Creepy Pasta” obsessed Kelly (Emily Haine) – could already be in the Midnight Man’s clutches, that’d be – oh, right. That happens.

Senile Anna is another story altogether – Zariwny’s grey-haired red herring in the worst way. Lin Shaye injects so much destabilized madness into this energetic, midnight-perfect role, elevating herself into a stratosphere well above The Midnight Man itself. Whether she’s screaming about Alex’s disgusting blood, or ominously whispering dreadful remarks through a housewide intercom, or beating Robert Englund to a pulp with wide-eyed psychosis – well, if you’ve seen Dead End, you *know* the kind of batshitery Shaye is capable of. Her genre vet status on display like a damn clinic here.

Shaye – and even Englund – aside, scripting is too procedural to salvage any other performances. Kelly doesn’t even deserve mention given her “bring on death!” attitude and enthusiastic late entry INTO AN URBAN LEGEND’S DEATHTRAP – a poorly conceived “twist” with less structure. This leaves Grayson Gabriel and Haugh herself, two thinly-scripted cutouts who couldn’t find a more repetitive genre path to follow. There’s little mystery to the gonigs on, and neither actor manages to wrangle tension (even when staring our Midnight friend in the face…thing).

Scares are hard to come by because Zariwny opts for a more “charismatic” villain who talks like Scarecrow and appears as a dyed-black, cloaked Jack Skellington. He can form out of clouds and is a stickler for rules (candles lit at all times, 10 seconds to re-ignite, if you fail he exploits your deepest fear). Credit is noted given this villain’s backstory and strict instructions – which does make for a rather killer game of tag – but the need to converse and expose Midnight from shadows subtracts necessary mysticism. He’s a cocky demon with masks for each emotion (think woodland death imp emojis), but never the spine-tingling beast we find ourselves hiding from.

This is all a bummer because gore goes bonkers in the very first scene – with underage victims no less. One young player gets decapitated, another explodes into a red splattery mess (against fresh snowfall), but then a vacuous lull in process takes hold. It’s not until Alex’s fear of blood and Miles’ fear of pain that we get more eye-bulging squeamishness, then again when Kelly’s bunnyman appears. A no-bullshit, bunny-headed creature wearing a suit, which plays directly into Kelly’s deepest fear. When Zariwny gets sick and surreal, he scores – but it’s a disappointing “when.”

I take no pleasure in confirming that any small victory The Midnight Man claims is negated by kids who should’ve been offed for even thinking about a quick playthrough of Anna’s old-school entertainment. Invite him in, pour your salt circles and try to survive until 3:33AM – sounds easy, right? If the demon plays fair, you bet! But why would ANYONE trust a demon’s word? Makes sense given Alex and Miles’ ignorance of more red flags than a Minesweeper game, and a thrilling chase these bad decisions do not make.

  • The Midnight Man
2.5

Summary

The Midnight Man begins by striking a meteoric horror high, only to plummet back down towards repetitive genre bumbling once the game’s true – and less enticing – plot begins.

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American Psycho Meets Creep – Strawberry Flavored Plastic Review

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Starring Aidan Bristow, Nicholas Urda, Andres Montejo

Directed by Colin Bemis


Recently I wrote up an article here on Dread Central which was basically an open letter to anyone who was listening called “I Miss Found Footage.” Well, it seems like someone WAS listening, as I was then sent the link to an all-new found footage film called Strawberry Flavored Plastic from first-time writer-director Colin Bemis.

The film follows the “still-at-large crimes of Noel, a repentant, classy and charming serial killer loose in the suburbs of New York.” Basically, you could think of the flick as American Psycho meets Mark Duplass and Partick Brice’s Creep. That, or you could think of it as “Man Bites Dog in color!” However you choose to label Colin Bemis’ psychological thriller, just make sure you check out the film once it hits in the future.

As I alluded to above, the film is basically a found footage version of American Psycho. But that said, the film sports a twist on the charming serial killer subgenre that I have yet to see play out in any of the above-mentioned classics. I’m not going to go into spoiler territory here, but I will say that the film introduces an element to the tale that spins it into much more of a character drama than a straight horror film. Not that there is anything wrong with that!

Truth be told, the film’s turn from serial killer flick into a layered character study might have been its kiss of death, but this slight genre switch is rendered a minor issue as the film’s central narcissistic antagonist is played by Aidan Bristow. Bristow is an actor you may not have heard of before this review, but you will hear his name more and more over the years to come, I promise. The guy gives (no pun intended) a killer performance as the film’s resident serial killer Noel Rose, and time after time surprised me with how chilling, charming, or downright vulnerable he chose to play any given scene.

Bristow’s performance is, in the end, the major element the film has going for it. But that said, as a fan of found footage, I was smiling ear to ear at first-time director Colin Bemis’ understanding of what makes a found footage suspense sequence work.

In Strawberry Flavored Plastic director Colin Bemis is confident and content to allow full emotional scenes to play out with the camera directed at nothing more than a character’s knees. Why is this so important? Because it keeps the reality of the film going. Too many found footage directors would focus on the actors’ faces during such emotional scenes – no matter how contrived the camera angle was. In this film, however, Bemis favors the reality that says, “If you were really in this emotional state and holding a camera, you would let it drop to your side.” I agree, and it is small touches like that which make the film feel authentic and thus – once the shite hits the fan – all the scarier.

On the dull side of the kitchen knife, the film does feel a bit long even given it’s short running time, and there doesn’t seem too much in the way of visceral horror to be found within. Again, graphic blood and gore aren’t a must in a fright flick, but a tad more of the old ultra-violence would have gone a long way in selling our main psychopath’s insanity and unpredictability. But all the same, the film does feature a rather shocking sequence where our main baddie performs a brutal home invasion/murder that puts this film firmly in the realm of horror. In fact, the particular POV home invasion scene I’m talking about holds about as much horror as you’ll ever wish to witness.

In the end, Colin Bemis’ Strawberry Flavored Plastic is a must-see for fans of found footage and serial killer studies such as American Pyscho, Creep, and Man Bites Dog. I recommend giving it a watch once it premieres. If only to be able to point to Aidan Bristow in the near future and tell all your friends that you watched (one of) his first movies.

Until then, check out the film’s trailer HERE, and follow the movie on Facebook.

  • Strawberry Flavored Plastic
3.5

Summary

Lead actor Aidan Bristow turns in a star-making performance in Colin Bemis’ Strawberry Flavored Plastic, a found footage film that plays out like Man Bites Dog in Color before introducing a new element to the charming-serial-killer subgenre and becoming more character study than a straight horror. Think American Psycho meets Creep.

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