DVD reviews: Prepare for Halloween with these scary flicks
The Invoking 2
Now I haven't seen "The Invoking" but apparently it was popular enough to warrant a follow-up. Bear in mind that sometimes this means a film was made so cheaply it couldn't help but turn a profit (and from what I've seen of Jeremy Berg's work, that could easily be the case). Certainly "The Invoking 2" shows signs of not much money expended. Rather than a single story, this so-called sequel is an anthology of short films that purport to be true tales of supernatural events that have gone unreported (begging the question of how the filmmakers found out about them). My guess is that they were all simply too boring to tell anyone about. Heaven knows as I write this it's been a mere day since I watched the film and I barely recall anything about it. I do remember that a couple of the episodes are strikingly photographed and thinking whoever made those segments was more interested in finding arty camera angles than weaving a coherent tale. Not that there's anything wrong with arty camera angles, mind you, but if there's nothing compelling anchoring them the result is empty technique and tedium. They look for all the world like student films — and given the profusion of unknowns before and behind the camera that might well be precisely what has been gathered here. I might be more lenient if that is the case but not to the extent of claiming "The Invoking 2" is worth your time.
2015 / RLJ Entertainment / 83m / $27.97 [NR]
While there are earlier examples, such as "The Bad Seed," I think the first real example of killer children films would be the original "Village of the Damned." They probably are the fantasy equivalents of the juvenile delinquent movies of the 1950s; certainly the youth movement of the late 1960s and early 70s seemed to prompt a slew of them. The sub-genre has never quite gone away and the latest installment goes by the cognomen of its title character, "June." A prologue has her as a baby, in some sort of ritual that calls down a light show from the sky; she is smuggled away before whatever is supposed to happen quite happens and all the participants are struck dead. Cut to nine years later and she is a foster in the household of a truly ghastly trailer trash family. Bad things happen to all of June's foster parents it seems and sure enough an explosion wipes out these dreadful people (and possibly many of their equally awful neighbors). June (Kennedy Brice) is soon in the home of a nice young couple, Dave and Lily (Casper Van Dien and Victoria Pratt), who seem to have oodles of money but no visible means of support.
But once again June's imaginary friend Aer — who we know from decades of watching horror movies is anything but imaginary — starts wreaking havoc and at one point everything on the walls of the house is hurled to the floor. And so it goes. "June" is not a bad film per se but it seriously flunks the So What Test (if a film ends and you say "So what?" it's failed the test). Dave and Lily are so bland (despite decent performances from Van Dien and Pratt) they make 1950s TV parents seem quirky. The trailer trash couple at least evokes a response — though it admittedly it is the hope they will sooner rather than later meet a spectacularly sticky end. And then there's the gent who places June in her foster homes (Eddie Jemison); he's so unbelievable creepy that no children and youth organization on earth would hire him. But aside from the various hard to swallow aspects there just isn't anything here you haven't seen before — albeit perhaps not quite so beautifully photographed.
2014 / RLJ Entertainment / 83m / $27.97 [NR]
While there's nothing — or at least very little — new in Anthony DiBlasi's "Last Shift" that doesn't mean it isn't a fairly solid, if very minor, entry in the horror genre. Most genre films — and I think this applies to the horror genre more than any other — work best when they deliver precisely what you expect of them. Too much invention, too much experimentation and the end result is no longer satisfactory genre. Newly minted police officer Jessica Loren (Juliana Harkavy) is assigned the apparently boring and uneventful task of keeping watch on a shuttered police station for the last night any law officer will be present. In the morning the last items remaining will be removed by a Hazmat team and the property will be abandoned. The only break in the night's tedium will be possible incoming phone calls from people using the old number. Small but very odd things happen, such as a vagrant who manages entry into the supposedly secured building not one but twice. Naturally the odd little things become bigger and very odd indeed.
No surprise but the building is haunted as all get out by the members of a Manson-like gang of serial thrill-killers. And they're not the only ghosts present — Jessica is receiving phone calls from the dead as well. Telling more would spoil one of the film's few true surprises (not to mention its most unusual moment). It's not the tale that is different here so much as the manner of its telling. We've gotten so used to the image of a character in closeup that we expect something will happen behind them or that a camera shift will reveal something that wasn't there before. DiBlasi gives us plenty of images framed in just that way and then subverts our expectations only to deliver the goods later when we're not expecting it. Aside from that "Last Shift" is pretty much by the book and extremely low budget to boot. Filmed in an existing location and with no color correction for the fluorescent source lighting "Last Shift" looks downright grotty, which actually works in the film's favor. But without that and DiBlasi's subversive approach there might not be very much of interest here. This isn't a perfect haunted house film — a genre more noted for failed attempts than successes anyway — and it's never as compelling or scary as it needs to be but genre fans should find it of some interest.
2015 / Magnet / 88m / $24.98 BR [R]
For those of us who grew up in a generally more antiseptic TV landscape it's something of a shock to realize that these days some of the best written, directed and acted horror is on the small screen rather than the large one. There are vampires that don't sparkle in the sunlight on "True Blood" and "The Vampire Diaries" (a favorite of mine) — and witches and werewolves as well; there's "American Horror Story" and "Bates Motel" and there are something like three zombie shows at last count. Not all these shows are primo but then there's "Penny Dreadful," which for my money is best of the lot. The set-up has Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and his creation of course (Rory Kinnear), Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and explorer turned monster hunter Sir Malcom Murray (Timothy Dalton) all in Victorian London. (In terms of when these characters were initially created only Frankenstein had to be transplanted from several decades earlier.) Sir Malcom brings the doctor in as part of his team that already includes the mysterious witch Vanessa (Eva Green) and a wild west show sharpshooter, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) who unbeknownst to the others suffers from transformations during the full moon. Ah, but he's hardly the only one with a secret.
There's no reason this mash-up of classic characters should work at all, much less as well as it does but writer John Logan has managed the neat trick of acknowledging the initial stories while adding fresh new twists — and his writing for the characters is superlative. And speaking of superlatives, this is one terrific cast. The approach hovers somewhere between Universal and Hammer with a slight lean toward the latter in terms of the period setting and the amount of blood (hardly excessive by today's standards). Yet other periods of movie horror are also incorporated — the look of the vampires is more Max Schreck than Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee while Frankenstein's lab owes something to Kenneth Branaugh's film. (And this might be an appropriate time to acknowledge the show's exceptional production design and photography. "Penny Dreadful is one gorgeous looking show.) Season two goes in a different direction than might have been expected — Sir Malcom and company are beset by a coven of witches rather than engaging in further vampire hunting. We learn a lot more about Vanessa's past and a bit more about Ethan's but that's all I'm going to say. If you're a fan of Gothic horror and you haven't checked out this show, you really must.
2015 / Showtime, Paramount, CBS DVD / 544m (3 discs) / $49.99 BR [NR]
The Vatican Tapes
The opening moments of "The Vatican Tapes" made it look like I was in for another one of those found footage crapfests leading me to groan audibly — when will this approach die already? Fortunately while found footage, courtesy of security cameras and the like, is interpolated (and even becomes a plot point) the storytelling is mostly done in a more conventional manner. A young woman named Angela (Olivia Taylor Dudley) exhibits stranger and stranger behavior, including deliberately causing a taxi to crash, and lands in a psychiatric hospital. Eventually the head doctor (Kathleen Robertson) is so creeped out by Angela's behavior she insists dad (Dougray Scott) remove her. The hospital priest (Michael Pena) suspects possession however and calls in a fellow man of the cloth to perform an exorcism. But the demon they confront turns out to be one of Satan's most powerful minions. This one isn't going to be content to steal the soul of just one young woman; its plan is to wreak general havoc and ultimately achieve world domination. Or something like that.
Reportedly back in 2009, "The Vatican Tapes" was voted one of the "most liked" unmade scripts of the year. Possibly the grading was on a curve or alterations have been made since then because this is one messy film storywise and only a few days after viewing it, I'm having trouble recalling quite how the plot progresses. A few isolated scenes stick in my mind, such as the psychiatric interview of Angela by Dr. Richards, and I fear that is because I was taken by how different Robertson is her from her ongoing role in "Episodes." Another moment that lingers is Angela chanting through the wall of the common room, causing the inmates to go berserk and savage the staff. For the most part, however, this is a horror film that's scant of scares. It says much that the creepiest moments are of Dudley staring into the camera with decidedly unsettling eyes. What worth there is here comes from the cast. They deliver but the package they've been given is not very substantial.
2015 / Lionsgate / 91m / $19.99 BR [PG-13]