Dead End (2003)

Dead End (2003)

Read the signs

It’s Christmas Eve and, on the way to the in-laws with his family, Frank Harrington decides to take a short cut for the first time in twenty years. It turns out to the biggest mistake he ever made as, stuck in the middle of nowhere with his family, a horrific chain of events is put into motion.

 

Films like Dead End are why I trawl through hours of absolute rubbish, nonsense and bizarre horror films. There is always one little nugget of gold hiding amongst the mud. A film which has received little fanfare, is little known and is most likely never going to rank on any Top 10 lists. Dead End is such a nugget. Whilst it’s never going to rank up there as one of my favourites, it’s a very solid way to spend ninety minutes.

Feeling like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone with a slight twang of every popular road trip horror movie from the last thirty years thrown in for good measure, Dead End will not impress anyone who goes in looking for something a little meatier. It’s low budget. It’s got a very simple plot. And for seasoned veterans, you’ll be able to figure out exactly where the film is heading right from the start. But that doesn’t mean to say you’re not going to enjoy it. Dead End was a total breath of fresh air for me and it’s certainly one of the better horror films I’ve seen over recent years. Sometimes it pays to keep things straightforward and a little old school and what you have with Dead End is a film with a simple hook that reels you in almost from the outset. Everything is done with a tinge of black humour just simmering underneath the surface.

Focusing on characters and engineering a really creepy vibe instead of relying on gore and cheap schlock devices, Dead End doesn’t feel like your generic American horror (with two French guys at the helm, there’s a good reason for that). Budget constraints probably forced their hand more than they would have wanted but the lack of budget has helped the duo bring out the best of a bad situation. Well-shot, with plenty of tension and lots of lurking menace, Dead End gives off a spooky vibe as soon as the proverbial hits the fan when the family are grounded along the road. It won’t give you sleepless nights but there are some well-placed jumpy moments to go along with the eeriness.

The use of this one location – the long road to nowhere – gives you the impression of no escape. There’s always the sense that something horrible could happen at any minute and you’re kept on your toes throughout. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. A lot of things occur during the course of the film that have no explanation. It’s all part of the master plan to keep the story ticking over until the end. Sadly, for genre lovers, this end will come as no surprise to anyone and what’s worse is that there are plenty of threads and ideas left hanging. Dead End undoes all of its good work with a really poor final ten minutes.

With the film confined to one remote location, this means that there’s not going to be too many characters cluttering up the screen. So it was essential to the film’s success that these characters be well-developed: realistic, sympathetic and heroic in equal measure. Plus it was important that they weren’t annoying – it’s the kiss of death for a film when you want to see the characters die. Seeing this family unit break down amidst a nightmare scenario gives the story a central focus. Ray Wise, fresh from battling monsters in Jeepers Creepers 2, stars as Frank Harrington. I don’t want to typecast the guy but he certainly has carved out a little niche for these father-figures and it’s great to see him taking centre stage again. He’s a quality character actor and you can feel his mixed emotions and pain. Alexandra Holden, as the daughter, and Lin Shaye, as Frank’s long-suffering wife, both give quality performances too to really add to the family character. Shaye overdoes it a bit when she loses her sanity but it’s still a great performance.

 

Dead End is a refreshing horror film which proves that in this genre, real talent shines through if you have a budget of $100m or $1. The ending is a bit of a cop-out but the ride there is fun and the company is good.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Armageddon of the Dead (2008)

Armageddon of the Dead (2008)

When the dead have risen, some things are more important than your own survival.

A train carrying dangerous chemicals derails on the outskirts of a small American town which releases a gas that begins to reanimate the dead. This spells bad news for a young couple who left their daughter at her grandma’s house and are now trying to rescue her by battling their way through the zombie wasteland.

 

Another low budget zombie flick with another variation on ‘….. of the Dead’ as the title and another fancy cover apparently showcasing the zombie apocalypse bringing down burning cities. Look at the covers for The Zombie Undead, Zombie Apocalypse, The Dead Undead, The Horde, Zombie Virus On Mulberry Street, World of the Dead: Zombie Diaries 2, Apocalypse of the Dead and so on….they’re all virtually the same. Its overkill at an extreme level to see so many similarly-themed films all being released within the space of a few years (though The Horde doesn’t deserve to be in the same bracket as the others as it’s actually really good). And besides which, pretty much none of them feature anything as remotely as exciting as their covers suggest. See the muscular man and woman on the front sporting some serious hardware and looking upon the zombie menace like they mean business? Well you won’t see them in this film that’s for sure!

Armageddon of the Dead’s artwork has nothing to do with anything in the film (even more so than usual). Neither does the majority of the synopsis on the back of the DVD. It’s almost like a totally different film. The DVD blurb proclaims that Armageddon of the Dead ‘has been called one of the goriest, most violent films ever made.’ No source is attributed to this quote. For all I know, it was the director who said that. It most definitely is not one of the goriest, most violent films ever made. Its most definitely is nowhere near being one of the goriest, most violent films ever made. This is a ridiculous unquantified statement which just goes to show how desperate the makers of this film were to sell their product to a gullible market currently being well-served by TV’s The Walking Dead.

Armageddon of the Dead isn’t gory or violent in the slightest so, unless that quote came from someone who has only ever watched Disney films, then it’s a big fat lie. Attack scenes generally consist of the standard neck biting or gang assaults where victims are mugged by a group of zombies (which conveniently means you don’t get to see the victim being ripped apart as there’s too many zombies in the way). There’s a few of the headshots that you’d expect to see but its standard issue zombie film stuff done at an amateurish level. Watch one of Fulci’s zombie films if you want violence and gore.

Armageddon of the Dead is low budget zombie movie making at its most blatant – low on creativity, low on originality and low on entertainment. It’s fairly standard issue storytelling to place a group of normal people into the extraordinary situation of a zombie apocalypse but it serves its purpose pretty well here. Only you never get the sense that this is the end of the world. There’s no scale or scope. And there’s nothing worse than a modern zombie flick which can’t decide how to portray its zombies – whether they go old school like classic Romero or the sprinting fiends from the Dawn of the Dead remake. So you get lots of inconsistency here, with some shuffling along as if they have no care in the world and others gunning for the 100m record.

I’m afraid that at some point we have to mention the acting – or lack of it. Think nursery nativity levels of direness. Zombie films like this rarely pull off any big names as it’s usually the case of a director and a few mates doing some silly stuff in front of a camera. Of course the acting isn’t helped by the poor screenplay so even Pacino or De Niro would find this a struggle to work. At one point the main character is wrestling with a door to stop a ravenous zombie from entering his bathroom and devouring him. His phone rings. Instead of ignoring it like any sane person would, he actually wonders whether to let go of the door and answer it. I guess that annoying Unknown Caller would have hell to pay when they find out the person they are harassing has just been gored by a zombie. The dumb script gives me no reason to care for the characters at the start of the film and you’ll spend the next hour rooting for the zombies to break through and mercy kill them.

 

Armageddon of the Dead is an atrocious zombie film of gigantic proportions. With nothing to do with its advertised premise, grossly misleading artwork and overblown visions of being the next big zombie thing, the only thing apocalyptic about this is the realisation that thousands of people across the world have wasted an hour and a half of their life on this rubbish.

 

NB: the film originally went under the name Risen but it was changed for some reason to Armageddon of the Dead, no doubt due to the slew of rival zombie films that had similar names. Getting confused and watching the wrong one is a mistake I’ve already made once!

 

 ★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

House of Wax (2005)

House of Wax (2005)

Hunted.Murdered.Displayed.

A group of teenagers are on a road trip to watch the most important football game of the year. On the way, they run into a detour which forces them to stop and camp for the night so that they can finish the trip the day after. After an encounter with a mysterious truck-driving local and finding that one of the cars has been damaged, two of the group accept a lift from a local to the nearest town so that they can get a replacement part and be on their way. The town’s central attraction is a now-defunct wax museum and after exploring it and seeing how realistic the dummies are, the pair soon realise that there is something more sinister to the town than meets the eye. They must find a way to escape before they become the next permanent exhibits.

 

Having had previous success with remakes of other 50s classics such as House on Haunted Hill and Thir13n Ghosts, Dark Castle Entertainment saw that there was potential to revisit further older properties and so turned their attention to House of Wax, immortalised in 1953 by a barmy Vincent Price and a novel 3D production. The resulting horror film borrows more heavily from cult late 70s horror Tourist Trap and the 80s slasher than it does the Vincent Price original but that’s not a bad thing. Playing more like a traditional teenage body count flick where a mentally-deficient psychopath stalks and kills a variety of young adults, House of Wax delivers far, far more than I had envisioned it would. In fact, I’m not ashamed to say that I really enjoyed it.

House of Wax features the traditional set-up: a bunch of teenagers on a road trip end up in the middle of nowhere and fall victim to a weirdo wearing a mask. There’s nothing new to see here. But story was never the strength of the slasher film and so once the inevitable exposition has taken place and the characters fall into the path of the killer, then that’s where these films begin to earn their money. House of Wax does that in earnest. But it does take a little while to get there. The character development and introductions take too long and even then there are some characters we know very little about. Stick with it though because once they arrive at the house of wax, then it steps up a couple of notches.

The two main reasons that this works as well as it does is the production design and the kills. First of all the stylish production design. The house of wax is a really unsettling, creepy place which is made entirely of wax and is populated by the wax-encased bodies of previous victims (thus cementing the link with the original). It does its job perfectly well and isn’t over-used. In fact, the whole wax angle is really played up here as a pivotal component to the plot, leading to the finale which involves fire and lots of CGI. The wax models are unnerving and, better yet, we get to see the waxing process completed in all of its horrific delight. Watch as one unsuspecting teen is strapped to a table and subjected to a tortuous process which is a one-way ticket to becoming the next attraction. You’ll think twice before the next time you’re in Madame Tussauds!

This leads me on to the kills. House of Wax doesn’t hold back on the gore and the brutality where many a recent horror flick has shied away from. There’s nothing played for laughs – it’s all mean-spirited where pain and suffering is the name of the game. In many respects, House of Wax borrow this nastiness from Saw a year earlier, with its depictions of carnage bordering on the realistic. Case in the point: the aforementioned ‘waxing’ scene. But there’s lots of other stuff including Achilles tendons being snipped, fingers cut off, decapitations and much more. Perhaps the film’s sickliest moment comes at the literal hands of a road kill pit, the thought of which just makes me nauseous. It’s this sense that something even more disturbing is just around the corner which keeps the film going.

With all of this eye-candy comes a host of the usual young suspects in the cast, many of whom were plucked from American TV shows. There are two notable actresses though. The first is the star, Elisha Cuthbert, more famous across the world for her Penelope Pitstop-style escapades in 24 as Jack Bauer’s eternally-suffering daughter. Cuthbert got a lot of unfair stick for her portrayal of the character which was down the script writers rather than her ability. She’s a decent actress and gets to show off a little of that here with a solid performance as the ‘Final Girl.’ A lot was made about Paris Hilton starring in this too and a lot of knives were sharpened ready to savage her. I’m not her biggest fan and I opt not to give her the airtime that her publicity craves because I have no interest in her as a person. I don’t hate her, just think that she is irrelevant. However I will stick up for her here in saying that she is by no means the worst part of the film. Her character is one-dimensional, her lines are limited and her glorious demise in the film was much-publicised before release. But she’s alright in the role. Without her paparazzi baggage, you wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at her being in this.

 

At times it can appear that House of Wax is more style over substance (and I’m looking at you, finale) but underneath the glossy surface is a gloriously nasty slasher which delivers the goods. The slasher material feels fresh, the wax elements are played to perfection and the cast do decent jobs of making it all seem believable. Highly underrated but maybe in ten years, we’ll look back on this in guilty pleasure fondness the way that we look back at some of the 80s slashers now.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Evil Bong (2006)

Evil Bong (2006)

Dude, it’s one SCARY trip!

A group of college stoner buddies come into possession of a mysterious bong that is sent to them after they respond to an ad in a paper. However, as they soon come to find out, anyone who smokes from it is pulled into the bong itself and killed.

 

But I’m sure you gathered that already. I mean, what else were you honestly expecting from a film called Evil Bong? I think I’ve reached rock bottom with this one and gone completely insane. Did I really watch this? Standards have been slipping for a while but even I’m not sure why I plumped for this one when I’ve got dozens of creature features, slashers and giant monster movies to watch.

As someone who has never got the whole ‘stoner’ culture, films like Evil Bong just go right over my head. The stereotypical images of laziness, stupidity, a lack of ambition, and so on, that are associated with stoners don’t exactly set my desires racing – who wants to sit and get high all day when I could be out there in the real world realising my dreams and ambitions (or just sitting as a keyboard warrior writing reviews!)? The same principle applies to these stoner films. Why should I invest my time supporting characters who would rather sit idly around and smoke weed rather than doing something productive with our very time-sensitive lives? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to brand everyone with the same tag because I just don’t get it: everything about smoking weed seems kind of pointless. Trying to build up a film and throwing in some Macguffin which stops the main characters from partaking in this seems just as futile.

Anyway, I’m sure I’ve done enough damage to my demographic and insulted a large portion of my readers with these comments but as I’ve said, I just don’t get it because films like Evil Bong are made as a result. Films with few redeeming qualities which showcase smoking weed as if everyone does it, and those who don’t should because they’re missing out on the in-jokes. I guess Evil Bong was made for a specific audience, hence the inclusion of notable ‘stoner actor’ Tommy Chong, famous for his series of Cheech and Chong comedies which revolved around smoking copies amounts of marijuana.  Chong is actually the best bit about the film. I’ve never seen any of the Cheech and Chong films but they are pretty infamous so it was pretty easy to spot the obvious gags and references, though not necessarily getting them, and at least Chong is committed to delivering a scenery-chewing performance.

If you expect anything resembling a cohesive film then think again. It’s almost like a sketch scene with one or two ideas spread thinly over the running time. The film is shot entirely across two sets: the Friends-style front room in the real world and the ‘bong world’ strip club. And that’s it. Characters will smoke weed in the real world, are sucked into the bong and then are either killed or attempt to escape from the bong. That’s the entire film in a nutshell. Rinse and repeat. There are no scares here. No tension. No atmosphere. No freakiness (unless you count a bong with eyes and a mouth). What’s really annoying about Evil Bong is that all of the scenes inside the bong are given a hazy border to give us the impression that they’re in this bong world and are under the influence of the drugs (and no doubt expecting most of its target demographic to be under the influence as well). Even the inclusion of copious nudity from the well-endowed strippers does little to keep interest piqued.

Charles Band has produced hundreds of films in his time under the various guises of his many production companies, most famously the Puppet Master franchise. Over recent years, he’s developed something of a ‘tiny terrors’ fetish in which his horror films must include some sort of maniacal miniature monsters. Evil Bong is populated by a bunch of cameos from Band’s more famous productions including the Gingerdead Man, Jack Attack from Demonic Toys and even a cameo from Tim ‘Dollman’ Thomerson. In this respect, it’s more of an extended commercial to showcase Band’s other franchises and those who don’t know who these characters are will be none the wiser as to their inclusion. The Evil Bong of the title is another of those puppets with limited movement which just sits there, says a few things where its mouth moves slightly and that’s it. Hardly the stuff of nightmares. When you make the Gingerdead Man look like Freddy Kruger, you’ve got problems!

 

As an English teacher, even I am lost for words for how I can summarise Evil Bong. Describing it as horror is pushing it too far. Calling it a comedy is a disservice to the likes of Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin, and Keaton. Jeez, when I think of the likes of The Shawshank Redemption, The Godfather and Schindler’s List, Evil Bong kind of pales into embarrassing insignificance. It’s a film which had a limited market, would have an even limited fan base and most likely thirty or so people across the entire world will rate it as their favourite film.

 

 ☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Video Dead, The (1987)

The Video Dead (1987)

Look what’s living inside your television.

A family take delivery of a brand new television set, unaware that it is the gateway in which zombies from a low budget horror film are able to enter the real world.

 

In order to appreciate a film like The Video Dead, it is necessary to remember the time period in which it was made. Home video and rental stores were all the rage as there was no other way to watch a film other than in the cinema or it being shown on TV once in a blue moon. Even this was reserved for the blockbuster premieres a few years after their release. Video stores were full of the big hitting 80s films but in an era where literally anyone (and seemingly everyone) could make a film, it was the horror sections which drew most attention, mainly from the underage kids who fawned at the awesome cover art for some lurid horror films which they had no hope in hell of getting their parents to rent for them. The Video Dead being one of these titles: a graphic front cover featuring a rotting zombie bursting out of a television set. If you’re in your early teens, this cover is almost impossible to resist. We don’t get cover art like this anymore. It’s a shame because as bad as The Video Dead is, the cover art is superb. It really attempted to sell the film to its audience even before they’ve picked up the VHS. Expectations were raised but almost inevitably were dashed every time the film actually began playing.

Anyway, enough context. Long before The Ring featured long-haired ghosts crawling out of television sets came this late 80s micro budget nonsense featuring zombies which had the ability to pull off the same trick. The Video Dead does have a novel idea at its core but the execution is shocking. It’s a dull, drawn-out affair which meanders from start to finish, occasionally promising to spark into life but never once providing anything more than a minor heartbeat. The main issue is the lack of story which gives the audience little reason to invest any time into the film. The TV set is never explained, there are too many pointless characters who add nothing to the narrative and everything seems to be very much from the ‘point and shoot’ school of thought. Dialogue is terrible, the acting just as bad and the snail’s pace plodding from A to C means that you’ll be counting down to the next zombie sighting as soon as possible.

Those expecting a low budget gore fest will be disappointed. The Video Dead is not from the same school of thought as any of the Romero zombie films. Here, the zombies are portrayed as silly, bumbling and rather comical, trying on hats and clothes in a bedroom rather than ripping apart victims and consuming their flesh. It’s this balance of serious and tongue-in-cheek that the film never gets right. The comedy, if I can call it that, detracts from the more serious nature of the film and the two genres never gel. Filmmakers can quite easily combine comedy and horror but only when they know what they are doing. The comedy needs to lighten up the horror and the horror needs to play on the comedy. When people haven’t got a clue how to mix them, the results look something like The Video Dead where the comedy is awkward and horror isn’t scary in the slightest.

The zombie make-up looks far better than it has any right to do given the budget, with each zombie being brought to life in individualised decaying fashion rather than just carpeting the entire cast with face paint. There’s a few moments of mild gore but The Video Dead looks woefully tame in comparison to more generous genre offerings from Italy from the same decade. On the whole, the rest of the special effects are as good as bigger budgeted films. The TV erupts with eerie blue lights and billows with smoke whenever the zombies begin to crawl through and there’s a sense here that at least the effects department had a clue what they were doing going in to this. The film-within-a-film that the zombies are starring in on the TV looks more interesting than anything else on display!

 

The Video Dead has a cult following and to some degree, it’s understandable due to the premise. However, all of the potential in the world is not going to do much good when the final product is as appalling as this is. I bet it provided some amazingly cheap thrills back in the 80s glory days of the video rental store with underage kids sneaking in to get a copy without their parents knowing (or from that rogue uncle who would always rent you the dodgy horrors) but nowadays it’s just awful.

 

 ★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Stinger (2005)

Stinger (2005)

Terror has surfaced

Following the reappearance of a thought-lost submarine containing a top-secret project, an investigative team is sent to the submerged vessel to find out what happened. After finding the submarine crew dead and ripped to pieces, they soon uncover just what killed them – a swarm of genetically-enhanced scorpions which are loose on board the sub.

 

Even by the low standards that many a horror film reviewed on this site, there always seems to be another one which seeks to lower the stakes. Enter Stinger, a feeble underwater creature feature with about as much venom as a headless snake. Made in Sweden, a country not exactly renowned for their film-making prowess, Stinger bears all of the hallmarks of a low budget American monster movie. Awful CGI effects, cardboard cut-out military characters with token big-breasted blonde scientists (at least the Swedes know where their strengths lay!) and a lot of too-ing and fro-ing in the corridors without a lot happening.

Stinger has minimal plot. There’s a brief pre-credits sequence setting up the events which led to the submarine going missing, then the titles and then the rescue mission is on its way. It’s a vague set-up which on one hand doesn’t insult the viewer by spewing out a load of nonsense but on the other hand, the rest of the film proves to be somewhat plot-less. The film then spends the rest of its running time going around in circles in the submarine, as the characters look around various corridors and rooms, run into the scorpions a few times and meet a crazy survivor, all with little or no purpose. Expect the usual tropes to take place here: instead of bailing at the first sign of trouble, the team finds itself stuck there and need to repair the systems in order to escape.

The film is almost entirely set on board the submarine (and the other bits are on the other mini-sub) and whilst the sets do allow for some claustrophobic elements to come to the fore, the lack of light and low production values really harm the atmosphere. At no point do you ever believe that they’re underwater. The grainy, murky film stock does little to assist the film’s intentions either. Characters’ faces are hidden in shadows, you can’t really see too much of the set (probably not such a bad thing) and there’s definitely no chance of getting a good look at the CGI scorpions which lurk in the shadowy background. The scorpions look bad and at no point will you believe they’re running around the submarine, the animations is just too awful to blend in with the real footage. Their eventual demise happens off-screen, such as the lameness of the plot and the lack of budget that this entire thing shows.

There are no recognisable faces on show and that’s a bonus as none of these sub-par stand-ins do any good. Check out their acting credits on IMDB and Stinger is one of the only films that the majority of them made. There’s little acting range: the marines talk tough and shout orders, the scientists talk slowly and arrogantly, and the psychotic survivor goes overdrive with the ramblings. The token blonde character gets to show off why Sweden is the go-to places for stunning women but it’s so predictable that she’s going to take her top off (and twice for the good of it), it ruins the eventual delights. It’s about the only thrill you’ll get from this, as the rest of the running time is dull and uneventful. Even the ‘action scenes’ fail to raise the pulse as marines fire guns aimlessly at non-existent scorpions.

 

Forgetting its European origins, everything about Stinger stinks of the low budget American creature feature market dominated by Sy Fy and The Asylum. But even their efforts are head-and-shoulders above this drivel.  If you have a burning desire to get a fix of killer scorpions, delve into the archives and watch The Black Scorpion from the 50s. The human elements may just be as bad but at least the scorpions pack a punch.

 

 ★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆