Directed by Ruairi Robinson
Distributed by Magnet
Exciting things have been happening in the world of direct-to-video titles in recent years. Smaller studios have been putting modest sums of money into producing ambitious, “unconventional” films with scripts strong enough to draw interest from some top notch talent. With so many DTV titles hitting the market every single week, it can be easy for filmgoers to overlook titles worth their time. Plus, it doesn’t help that marketing departments almost universally do nothing to make their films look unique; to stand out on a crowded shelf full of floating heads and overused imagery. Horror is a genre that can flourish in any market, DTV or big budget; and it’s from the DTV pool that many of each year’s most memorable titles spill forth. Irish director Ruairi Robinson’s sci-fi horror tale, The Last Days on Mars (2013), is certainly capable of making some best-of lists by year’s end. His film, adapted from Sydney J. Bounds’ short story “The Animators”, is a tense, engaging piece of filmmaking that in many ways feels like a contemporary successor to John Carpenter’s early work. Themes of isolation, confinement, mistrust, and escape all work simultaneously right up to the bitter end, leaving viewers on an ambiguous note that works beautifully.
The crew of the Tantalus research base on Mars is about to go home. Their six month mission searching for life on Mars has just 19 hours remaining before the Aurora, a passenger ship, arrives to take them back to the main orbiting vessel. Marko (Goran Kostic), one of eight scientists on site, makes a last minute request to go off site in order to repair a failing sensor, taking crewmate Richard (Tom Cullen) with him. On the way over, Marko admits to Richard he thinks microbial life has been found, using the ruse of a downed sensor to make the discovery himself. When they arrive, Marko finds what he was hoping for… just before a huge fissure opens up and drops him to a certain death below. Richard goes for help, bringing back Capt. Charles Brunel (Elias Koteas) and Dalby (Yusra Warsama) to investigate the newly-formed pit, but they quickly realize climbing equipment is needed to retrieve Marko’s body. Darby is left behind to keep watch. When Charles returns with Vincent (Liev Schreiber) they discover Darby gone and Marko’s body missing. Vincent spelunks down to investigate, finding a host of black bacteria growing on the rocks. They return to base to reconvene, though things are quickly turned to chaos when Marko reappears at the base… changed.
As tempted as I am to reveal the true nature of this film, a huge part of my enjoyment was going in knowing nothing about it aside from the Mars setting and Liev Schreiber leading the cast. It was a total bonus to find out Casey Jones himself, Elias Koteas, also signed on! But first, let’s get back to that Carpenter reference. Ruairi Robinson said one of his primary influences for this film was The Thing (1982), Carpenter’s unequalled masterpiece of horror. While I want to stress this film doesn’t even play in the same league as Carpenter’s, its influence is evident when you draw the parallels – isolated crew, medium in numbers, limited space to move about, and an evolving threat that breeds paranoia and suspicion. This may be giving too much away, but if I had to give the film a log line it’d be “28 Days Later (2002) on Mars”. Once the events begin to unfold, Robinson does a splendid job of maintaining an air of tension that just won’t quit. Our crew doesn’t have much room to move within, nor time to waste trying to quell the very real, very active threat stalking them at every turn.
A big part of why this film works is the interpersonal relationships amongst the crew. Robinson isn’t trying to impress with the film’s primary threat by doing something so original and bold. How many space horror films have fallen flat on their face by trying to astound audiences with something we’ve presumably never seen before? In the case of The Last Days on Mars, it’s a threat we’re familiar with, though maybe not on this particular planet. The filmmakers cast actors who usually perform in drama or action, not the typical sci-fi players viewers might expect. Liev Schreiber delivers a strong, emotional performance that presents a fractured man living with guilt, just trying to pass the time until he can get off this rock. He has genuine relationships with the people he works with; this isn’t the crew of Prometheus (2012). This is a group of rational scientists who work together, bicker, argue, and ultimately prove how much they care (or don’t) in the moments when it matters. Nobody is completely two-dimensional, even those who leave us relatively early.
The film majorly succeeds in projecting the feeling that we’re really on Mars. Many films set on the Red Planet wind up shooting in an American desert or, worse, in front of a green screen. This movie was shot in the deserts of Jordan, and those environments look about as foreign as anything I’ve ever seen. Robinson intentionally chose to present an arid, austere locale that wasn’t drenched in heavy red hues; the uniqueness of the chosen location conveys a Martian landscape better than any color tinting could. The Last Days on Mars presents a long-sought true life premise – discovering life on other planets – and uses it to deliver 98 minutes of well-executed horror where no one is truly safe.
Shot on 35mm film and then transferred to Blu-ray via digital, the film’s 2.35:1 1080p image is exceptionally good. The Jordanian deserts provide a stark palette upon which the filmmakers have overlaid extensive digital environments and tweaked the coloration to lend a subtle blanketing of red hues. The dusty, rocky terrain of Mars lies in stark contrast to the sterile, pristine interior of the crew’s base camp, which appears highly detailed and razor sharp. Facial closeups look so good you can count the individual hairs on Schreiber’s face. At least 1/3 of the picture takes place in well-lit environments, allowing every minute detail to come through with perfect clarity. Once we move to total darkness, all we’re allowed to see is what our cast can see, with lighting coming from sources such as a flashlight or the lights on a rover. Black levels are perfectly pitched. Despite working with a low budget, the visual FX team did a fantastic job of seamlessly blending the faux Martian landscape in with the real Jordan desert. If there’s one issue with the image – and, really, there is only one – it would be the presence of banding in a handful of shots. Otherwise, it’s a stellar presentation. Equally excellent is the film’s English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track. This immersive track features superb fidelity, with dialogue registering high in the mix without overpowering subtle sound effects or the score. Composer Max Richter’s work here is really impressive, evoking feelings of dread and stoicism. The climax in particular gets pulses racing with a mixture of robust bass and heavy string vibrato. There’s a healthy balance presented between quiet, introspective moments and an eruption of activity when events begin to spiral out of control. An enveloping atmosphere is provided thanks to healthy activity from the rear speakers, which don’t overpower with their ambient cues but, rather, gently support the film’s soundtrack. Subtitles are included in English SDH and Spanish.
I’m not going to lie here; it’s very disappointing no commentary track was recorded. It would have been great to hear director Ruairi Robinson discuss some of the film’s more ambiguous moments. What we do get are a couple of featurettes and some trailers. “The Making of The Last Days on Mars” is a featurette that runs for around 15 minutes. As mentioned before, Robinson talks about how films like The Thing influenced his filmmaking here. Schreiber recalls how he was immediately drawn to the script because it was like nothing he’d ever done before. There’s also discussion about shooting in the hot Jordan desert in a space suit, which sounds like absolute hell. “Analyzing the Visuals Effects” shows off the different layers of visual FX used to compose the environments. It’s always fascinating to see what was tangible and what was computer-generated, since many times it can be difficult to tell where one starts and another begins. “Behind the Scenes Comparisons” showcases scenes from the film being shot on-set while a small PIP window shows the finished shot below. “AXS TV: A Look at The Last Days of Mars” is your standard EPK, providing a concise overview of the feature.
- The Making of The Last Days on Mars
- Analyzing the Visual Effects
- Behind the Scenes Comparisons
- AXS TV: A Look at The Last Days on Mars
4 out of 5
2 out of 5
Discuss The Last Days on Mars in the comments section below!
The Open House Review – Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here
Written by Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote
Directed by Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote
Mere weeks, even days, after effusively beating Netflix’s original horror content drum (The Babysitter, Before I Wake, Creep 2), I’m here to confirm that The Open House is emptier than an vacant bomb shelter. Cold, unappealing and thoughtlessly plotted to the point where “generic” would have been an improvement. From the moment we’re welcomed into Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote’s scripted imprisonment, it’s nothing but loose floorboards and busted plumbing. The home invasion genre has rarely been navigated with such little attention to detail, asking for our suspension of coherent storytelling early, often, and without earning the right to be deemed mindless genre fun. Not even Ty Pennington could save this extreme renovation disaster.
Dylan Minnette plays Logan Wallace, a track star and student who must find closure after watching his father fall victim to a fatal car accident. It is his mother Naomi’s (Piercey Dalton) idea to spend a little time away from their suburban home – escape those painful memories – so they retreat to her sister’s luxurious mountain getaway. The catch? It’s in the process of being sold and open houses are on the regular, so Naomi and Logan must vacate their temporary premises on certain days. It’s after one of these very showings that Logan begins to notice slight changes around the house, and he fears that an unwanted visitor may be in their midst. Guess what? He’s right.
To understand how little The Open House cares about conscious blueprinting, just read the poster’s tagline. “You can’t lock out what’s already inside” – right, but you could have prevented them from coming in, or checked the house to make sure they weren’t squatting, or explored numerous other possibilities to avoid this scenario. The mansion’s realtor allows prospective buyers to come and go but it’s not her job to make sure no one’s hiding in the basement? Naomi can’t even keep track of the *single* visitor she lets look around the house? It’s infuriating to see so many people neglect safety out of forced coincidence because the script couldn’t rationalize the killer’s entry any other way – a confounding strike one.
This is also a film that admits no reasoning for why its own murderer has targeted the Wallaces, or why he stokes a violent fetish when it comes to open houses. We never actually see his face, just his imposing handyman-looking attire, nor do we savor any kind of tangible backstory (his family died during their own open house and he suffered a psychotic breakdown – just give me *something*). His undefined form never demands curiosity like John Carpenter’s “The Shape” once did, because scripting is nothing more than bullet notes for basic horror movie necessities. Here he is, your bad guy – too bad he’s introduced without fear, handled without originality and unable to characterize beyond torturous kidnapper dotted lines. He’s just, you know, a guy who sneaks into open houses and kills – COMPLETE WITH A FINAL PAN-IN ON AN OPEN HOUSE SIGN WHEN HE MOVES TO HIS NEXT TARGET [eye roll into infinity].
Every scene in The Open House feels like an afterthought. “Ah, we need a way to build tension – how about a senile local woman who lives down the street and wanders aimlessly into frame?” Overplayed and in no way suitable to most her inclusions, but sure. “Oh, and we need inner conflict – what about if the breaker-iner steals Logan’s phone and frames him for later acts?” I mean, didn’t Logan canonically lose his phone even before Naomi’s mid-shower water heater issues – but sure, instant fake tension. “How are people going to believe the killer is always around and never blows his cover – think they’ll just buy it?” No, we don’t. Worse off, his cat-and-mouse game is dully repetitive until a finale that skyrockets intensity with jarring tonal imbalance. This closing, dreadful end without any sort of redemptive quality. More abusive than it is fulfilling.
If there’s anything positive worth conveying, it’s that Minnette does a fine job shuffling around as a character with severe sight impairment. The killer makes a point to remove his contacts as a final “FUCK YOU,” just to toy around a bit more, and Minnette frantically slips or stumbles with nothing more than foggy vision. Otherwise, dialogue finds itself ripped form a billion other straight-to-TV Logo dramas about broken families, no moment ever utilizing horror past a few shadowy forms standing in doorways after oblivious characters turn away. You can’t just take an overused subgenre and sleepwalk through homogenized beats…case and god-forsaken point.
Even as a streamable Netflix watch, The Open House is irredeemable beyond fault. The walls are caving in on this dilapidated excuse for home invasion horror, benefiting not from the star power of a temperamental Dylan Minnette. I have seen most involved players here in far better projects (Minnette’s stock has rightfully been skyrocketing, Matt Angel in The Funhouse Massacre, etc), but this is bargain bin theatrics without a fully formed idea. A nameless villain, doomed nice guy (Sharif Atkins), woefully unaware plot advancement – all the worst cliches found in one rage-quit worthy effort. Anyone who makes it through deserves an award…or a dunce cap.
Unless you’re irrationally afraid of cold showers, The Open House fails to deliver on a premise that can be summed up by no more than two lines of text.
Ruby Blu-ray Review – ’70s Drive-In Psychic Shocker From VCI
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”.
- 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
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.
The Midnight Man Review – Don’t Hate The Game, Hate The Players
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 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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