Deathwatch (2002)

Deathwatch (2002)

Deliver them from evil

In the middle of the First World War, nine British soldiers caught behind enemy lines seek refuge in a complex network of German trenches. They soon discover that they aren’t alone in the trench and what is hunting them down isn’t a German soldier.

 

I do like a good war-based horror film, partly because the real horrors of war are far scarier than anything a writer could dream up for the screen, but also partly due to the sense of man vs monster that such outings can conjure up. Soldiers form a unique bond serving with each other during war time, as they know they have to depend on each other in life-or-death situations. They are a tight-knit group, closer than family in many respects, so it makes filmic sense (even if it is exploitative) to pit this type of cohesive unit up against perils even more deadly than the human enemies they face. How does discipline, bravery and masculine bravado deal with supernatural or monstrous forces?

There’s a real lack of decent horror outings based upon the First and Second World Wars – filmmakers just don’t seem to get it right. The likes of The Bunker and The Keep promise much but for various reasons, they just failed to completely click. Deathwatch is another – it has some great potential but just doesn’t anything decent thing with it. The introduction is all guns blazing, with the soldiers going over-the-top and experiencing the agony of no man’s land. The film is very disorientating here with the editing, the noise and the smoke but it’s designed like that for a purpose to replicate the sheer chaos of going over-the-top. Anyone with even half a brain can spot the big plot twist ending coming a mile away from a certain point in the introduction and it’s a pity it was signposted so blatant as it detracts from the narrative.

Deathwatch is shot with a bleak colour palette, with greys and browns dominating the screen and reflecting the grim realities of trench warfare. This is a world where mud is about the only thing there is an abundance of. The trench sets look realistic and very claustrophobic, and the weather is constantly raining or foggy, adding to the bleak atmosphere.  This must have been awful to shoot as an actor. The film also does a great of conveying the fact that there’s something amiss about this place, which is a task in itself as we all know how horrific trench warfare was, and the signs for them successfully leaving are ominous. But then the film proceeds to do very little with it – it’s all well and good in creating some decent atmosphere but it needs to serve a purpose.

Deathwatch does a decent job in catering to the horror crowd with some of the basics. There are red mists of blood, wailing and moaning noises, piles of dead bodies (some wrapped gruesomely in barbed wire), blood dripping down the sides of trenches and copious amounts of rats – the well-crafted visual nightmare is clear to see. However, there’s no real sense of narrative linking it all together. It’s not quite a ghost story. It’s not quite a slasher. There’s no hint of zombies. No real monstrous menace. Just a lot of things happening that can’t quite be explained by the characters, as one-by-one they succumb to various incidents. It’s very much a cycle of each character falling victim to paranoia or madness before they’re killed off by something. Things make a bit more sense (to some degree) with the ambiguous ending but the morality-play twist just reeks of desperation on the part of the writers as if they had no other way to conclude the story.

The characters do drift off a bit too much into stereotype: the upper class captain who doesn’t have the respect of his men; the aggressive psychotic who just wants to kill Germans anyway he can; the Bible-thumping believer who feels they are part of a bigger plan; the pasty-faced rookie who is too naive; the tough sergeant who the men look up to more than the captain; and the cynical doom monger. The easiest way to distinguish them is by their accents, as each one is conveniently given a regional accent to not only allow the audience to tell them apart, but also use our knowledge of accents to put two and two together in regards to potential character traits. It’s fairly cheap characterisation but it works as well as it needs to. In his first post-Billy Elliot role, Jamie Bell is awkward in the lead and needs the help of some reliable character actors to support him. Laurence Fox is decent as the foppish Captain Jennings, whilst most UK viewers will recognise Kris Marshall from the old BT adverts. Andy Serkis steals the show (when doesn’t he?) as the slightly-deranged Quinn, hamming it up to no end in a trademark nutjob performance. The cast is decent all round, it’s a shame they don’t have much to work with.

 

Deathwatch is highly atmospheric and very creepy, doing a great job in setting up what could have been a fantastically devilish horror. Sadly, there’s so much wasted potential here but this kind of goes along with the film’s period setting. The film works as a metaphor for the bleakness, pointlessness and futility of the First World War, with the expectations of the soldiers going off to fight in the glorious war suddenly dashed with the reality of trench warfare and a life of hardship a nice companion for Deathwatch raising hopes with the audience, only to dash it with little end result.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Asphyx, The (1972)

The Asphyx (1972)

Immortality … what would you sacrifice for it?

In 1875, Sir Hugo Cunningham uses his interest in photography to study the dying. As he notices strange blurs only on the pictures he takes near the moment of death, Cunningham theorises that what he can see Is the Asphyx, a spirit that the Ancient Greeks believed came to claim the soul as it departed the body. Cunningham discovers he can trap the Asphyx in the beam of a phosphate lamp and that by imprisoning it in the light, he can halt death and achieve immortality.

 

The Asphyx is a little-known effort from the Hammer-dominated Anglo-horror cycle which originated back in the late 1950s and was now in its swansong in the 70s. Conceptually a very Edgar Allan Poe-esque psychological thriller but with a dark, macabre edge, The Asphyx is head and shoulders above the Frankenstein, vampire, mummy and demonic possession films that Hammer, Amicus and their competitors had been churning out for years, with a classy sci-fi orientated story that many found a little too dull and dreary, leading to its obscurity over the years.

Take the hokeyness on display with a pinch of salt as there’s too much shoulder shrugging with plot holes to worry about the contrivances and coincidences and just sit back and soak up the sheer morbid sense of dread on offer. You’ve just got to accept what you’re seeing is reasonable and logical and come to the same conclusions as the characters, which is fairly easy to do given how well and convincing the film portrays the whole notion of death. It’s almost an oxymoron for me to describe the film as ‘intelligent’ given what I’ve just said but the story treats its subject material with a lot of respect. The Asphyx is slow-moving, sluggishly paced at times, but never boring as the scientists slowly develop their plans for capturing the Asphyx and put this into practice. You just know it’s not going to end well for someone as there’s always a bitter twist at the end for bold scientists trying to play God and here is no exception. The journey to that point is what makes this film work so well as there’s a consistently sinister undercurrent throughout – everything may look and appear to be very tame and under control but the tension is building to a head as to what will eventually happen.

Director by Peter Newbrook in his only directorial outing (he was in charge of second unit photography on Lawrence of Arabia so he had a good pedigree when it came to lining up shots), The Asphyx’s production values don’t give any indication of the low budget – a lavishly-decorated laboratory that Dr Frankenstein himself would be fond of is the focal point for much of the film’s running time, with steampunk-like contraptions and devices all being used by the scientists to try and trap the asphyx. Without looking at the date it was made, you could quite easily mistake The Asphyx for one of Hammer’s glorious Technicolour period pieces from the late 50s/early 60s, such is the attention to detail. Being set in the Victorian era allows the filmmakers the opportunity to explore the advances in science and technology that were beginning to come through at the time, creating a nice mix between modern scientific research and old-school obsession with the occult and supernatural which works well with the story. The scenes of the ghostly asphyx struggling to escape from the blue phosphate beam, wailing and shrieking away, are genuinely unsettling. It’s clearly just a cheap-looking hand puppet but the way it’s presented is ethereal and memorable. It’s great that the film doesn’t need to resort to grisly set pieces to shock its audience, though there are a few moments where you think if this had been Hammer, they’d have gone a bit further on-screen. It’s also worth noting that the method for catching and containing the asphyx, the blue light containment system, is virtually the same one that Ghostbusters used in 1984.

Performances are top notch across the board, but the credit needs to go to Robert Stephens as Cunningham, a man slowly driven mad by his obsession with immortality. It’s the classic Frankenstein/Dr Jekyll-like descent into madness that doesn’t see Stephens crossover into the realms of overacting, though one sequence involving him being electrocuted does push the boundaries a bit too far. I could have imagined Christopher Lee taking on this role, someone with a bit more of a sharp, sinister edge to his on-screen personas but Stephens does admirable work as it stands.

 

Intelligent and thought-provoking but sadly not finding an audience upon it’s release, The Asphyx is a great obscurity which is now receiving more critical acclaim having finally been released on blu-ray for the first time. One of the most underrated British horror films made, it’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but it’s different and varied approach will keep you hooked until the finale.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Trailer Park Shark (2017)

Trailer Park Shark (2017)

They’re gonna need a bigger trailer

The residents of a struggling trailer park find themselves caught up in a plot by a scheming land developer to wash away their homes away and secure the land by blowing up a levy. But the floodwater brings more than just muddy water to the trailer park – a deadly shark swims upriver to feast.

 

Ever since the days of the first Sharknado and Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus, the sharksploitation flick has been sinking to lower and lower depths, though I think they’ve bottomed out now. Zombie sharks. Frankenstein sharks. Flying sharks. Robot sharks. Ghost sharks. Nuclear-powered sharks. Toxic sludge-spewing sharks. I could keep going. That’s not to say Trailer Park Shark is the worst, but it’s simply prevented from touching the bottom by default, purely due to the awfulness of some of those films referred to.

The first time you’ll cringe at Trailer Park Shark is the awful brown colour palette that they’ve chosen to shoot the film in. I’m not joking when I say this is probably the worst-looking film I’ve ever watched – this colour decision is shocking. It just makes everything look drab and depressing, even more so given the low budget. It’s not like the film needed any disadvantage before it even has chance to get going but the cinematography looks truly awful. Moving along quickly from it’s opening set-up, Trailer Park Shark doesn’t take long to get going, flooding everything and unleashing the shark. From there, it’s almost like a Tremors-esque formula as the surviving characters are forced to remain on the tops of their trailers or other floating objects to avoid getting close to the water and potential shark-fodder. How the film needed five writers to produce this dreck is beyond me!

Director Griff Furst’s ‘awesome’ resume of carnage consists of Swamp Shark, Ghost Shark and Nightmare Shark (sensing a theme here) and he brings his unique ‘skills’ to the fore again here. Also known as Shark Shock, the novelty gimmick to this one is that the shark is given some sort of Electro-like powers to channel electricity. I can see your eyes rolling as you read this. Like most of the gonzo shark films, where the predators have some unique superhero-like abilities other than their natural speed and strength, there’s no need for the shark to be able to shoot electricity at people, other than for it to be a sales gimmick. The water seems to change depth whenever the script needs it to hide the shark because we all know that sharks this big can’t possibly hide in a few feet of water (they can attack in less than three feet of water) as there would no suspense for the “where is it?” moments. Not only that but the shark’s powers seem to vary depending on the scene. Sometimes it’s quite happy electrocuting it’s victims from afar; other times it just goes retro with a swift bite. At no point does the shark ever appear to be inhabiting the same plane of existence as the real footage and the CGI is truly woeful.

The majority of the actors overplay their roles, trying to imbue their redneck characters with as much ‘yee-haw’ as they muster in between chewing tobacco. The script forces down as many stereotypical redneck clichés as possible, because it’s easier to do this than develop actual characters. Tara Reid has a cameo, with a nod to her Sharknado role, and with looking as skinny and ragged as she does, could almost be taken for an actual trailer park resident. Dennis Haskins, of Mr Belding from Saved By The Bell fame, turns up in the token sleazy villain role (because a killer shark isn’t enough threat on its own anymore) and looks to have forwarded on his pay cheque into the catering department.

 

It seems the more of these films Sy Fy make, the lazier they become. Trailer Park Shark and its like have gone from cinematic junk food to recycled pig slop. There’s literally no reason for anyone with a sane mind to even want to watch this rubbish. However, if you ever wanted to know who win in a fight between a cowboy riding a horse and a killer shark, then this if your film.

 

 ★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Paganini Horror (1989)

Paganini Horror (1989)

Desperately needing a new hit to appease their producer, a female rock band acquire an unpublished score by legendary violinist Niccolo Paganini and head to his old remote villa to shoot a music video for their latest track. Little did they know that the sheet music is cursed and that they have unleashed the spirit of the dead composer and unlocked a gateway to Hell.

 

One final hurray for the Italian horror genre in the 80s or a damp squib to end the decade? I’ll give you a second to guess which category Paganini Horror falls into. A film with a bit of potential but with no clue on what it wanted to be, Paganini Horror is the epitome of how desperate the Italian horror genre was at this point in history; a film which did little success at the box office in Italy and didn’t really get much of a look-in across the world, consigned to obscurity and dodgy video bootlegs for decades. Now in a time where niche distributors in the UK and US are finally releasing these lost old school horrors for contemporary audiences, Paganini Horror sees the light of day to a whole new fanbase.

Paganini Horror comes with a bit of history between producer Fabricio De Angelis and director Luigi Cozzi. Angelis wanted a simple horror film whilst Cozzi wanted to play on his science fiction credentials by making something more fantastical. What we end up is a film which satisfies neither man – a timid horror film without any real scares or gore and a sci-fi film where all of the wacky cosmic stuff had been cut out by the time it hit theatres. The mish-mash of approaches is obvious. There are no rules. No limits. No restrictions. Like the majority of surreal Italian horror films from this era, you can’t even try and comprehend what is going on – just sit back and accept all of the nonsensical stuff on display. The plot meanders from idea to idea and not settling down with one clear direction – you’ve got Paganini slumming around the villa killing people, invisible forcefields preventing people from leaving and green fungus which melts people into piles of goo amongst other incidents that occur. It’s all very bewildering, especially with a twist ending which tries to explain everything that has come before it.

Paganini looks to be pitched as some sort of Freddy Krueger-like villain, stalking and killing with his Stratovarius complete with a retractable blade, but he’s hardly in the film enough to make a real impression. Instead, you have the characters exploring the villa, crawling around the same blue-lit tunnels, green glowing pits of Hell and red-coloured corridors. It’s just the sort of cheap and tacky Halloween funhouse you’d get in a carnival but it’s purely superficial atmosphere due to a lack of real scares or tension. Above all, and the cardinal sin for any film from my point of view, is that Paganini Horror is just dull. There’s a lot of crazy stuff floating around but there’s also a lot of nothing, with too many scenes just involving characters standing around talking about what is going on (and a dreadful script full of exposition to explain all) or walking around exploring the villa.

This being the 80s and featuring a rock group as the main characters, if you think you’re going to survive without hearing some of their songs then you’ve got another thing coming. I’m not sure we needed to listen to the entire blatant rip-off versions of ELO’s Twilight and Bon Jovi’s You Give Love a Bad Name being blasted out by the band, but it does waste valuable screen time in two lengthy sequences. However, they’re kind of catchy in that 80s Italian rip-off way and I have immediately downloaded them to add to my cheesy Italian horror rock collection (Clue in the Crew’s The Sound of Fear from Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 will take some beating)

Donald Pleasance cameos in a throwaway role as the mysterious dealer who sells the score to the group. It’s probably the easiest pay cheque he will have ever received, working only three days and getting a free holiday to Venice out of it. Bizarrely, he’s dubbed over by someone else in the English language version of the film, making him sound like some low budget Pinhead. The rest of the cast are your typical group of 80s fashion victims, ineffectual male characters and cute but vapid females. Flicking between the English language dub and the original Italian version, it didn’t make much difference to the performances, consisting of really bad overacting, shouting when not needed and a general sense of phoning in it. Pretty standard for Italian horror at this time.

 

Cozzi denounced the film as the ‘poorest film in the history of the cinema’ and though he’s got something of a point, Paganini Horror is by no way the worst Italian horror film you’re ever going to see. It’s cheesy enough, mad enough and quick enough to provide some entertainment but the film is very much scraping the barrel of the genre at this point.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Return of the Killer Shrews, The (2012)

The Return of the Killer Shrews (2012)

The Killer Shrews are back, and only one man remembers how to stop them…or die trying!

Fifty-three years after being attacked by killer shrews on a remote island, Captain Thorne Sherman is hired by a reality television crew to return to the island in question. Upon arriving at the island, Sherman soon finds out that the shrews are still alive and they soon attack again in short order.

 

One of the cheesiest horror sci-fi horror films to come out of the 1950s, The Killer Shrews is the personification of a bad movie, an infamous Z grade schlocker which came to fame not because of it’s plot (just your generic mutant monster movie) but in how it presented its titular shrews – trained dogs, slapped with extra patches of fur and with humungous fake teeth strapped to their heads. It is even more ridiculous than it sounds. Films like this go beyond normal criticism and exist in their own little bubbles, impervious to the barrage of abuse they receive.

Sadly, The Return of the Killer Shrews is even goofier than the original (not in a good way) and is not as impervious to the barrage of abuse it rightfully deserves. It tries so hard to be a cult classic like the original, but all of the self-awareness it tries to exhibit is just hollow and the humour it desperately tries to make funny is anything but. The production tries to be a comedy and massively fails in the process. While the original played it straight and worked for what it was (ending up more of an accident comedy due to the camp value), this one tries to go down the deliberate comedy route and misses it’s mark completely.

There’s little else in the story to go on and so the goofiness is all the cast have to try and maintain audience interest. There’s little tension, little suspense and little craft – the narrative ambles from one scene to another with no real build-up or cohesion. The shrews even attack during the day, throwing all semblance of excitement or fear out of the window once you get a look at them. There is a real lack of urgency about everything in the film, from the shrews who just stand around and hiss a lot of the time, to the actors milling around the island without emoting.

Given the size of the shrews and the fact they had to start attacking humans as their food supply had run out, just what have they been eating on this remote island for the past fifty years? The killer shrews look a little less like dogs this time around, only they’re now CGI dogs with longer fur and teeth. I much prefer the cheesy reality of the original monsters to these pathetic computer-generated creations, in which the effects somehow look worse than they did in 1959. These CGI shrews look embarrassing, with only a few frames of animation spread between all of their on-screen appearances. Let’s face it, the only reason the original become so infamous was because of the terrible special effects. Now the effects are just your run-of-the-mill Sy Fy / Asylum bottom-of-the-barrel leftovers which you’ll have seen in countless low budget monster movies over the past decade. There’s nothing here to make the monsters stand out and what’s worse, they look nothing like the shrews on any of the variations of the poster artwork. What’s really sad is that there are some puppet props used for close-up shots during attack scenes and, as cheesy as they look, actually work far better than the computer-generated effects. Maybe the film would have been better off slumming it with some these dodgy practical effects, something which would have captured the spirit of the original in a far better way than the CGI.

James Best starred in the original and he’s been paid enough to come back fifty-three years later which could possibly be the longest period an actor has had between portraying the same role. It’s insane to think that this was even a possibility given the time span between the two films, but Best is here. The eighty-six-year old is fairly deadpan in his delivery, either totally oblivious to what is really going on around him or too savvy to let on that he knows. Whether or not it was planned, Best reunites with his The Dukes of Hazzard co-stars John Schneider and Rick Hurst for what some people will find an amusing set-up. I, however, have no fond connection to that TV show and so this reunion is wasted upon the likes of me. Schneider has a blast in his role as the washed-up reality TV superstar and is arguably the best thing about the film – a sad indictment indeed.

 

The Return of the Killer Shrews is a woeful film which is completely devoid of anything of merit. In trying to follow the original’s footsteps in making a Z grade film, they’ve actually gone and done it, just not in the way they were probably expecting to make. Truly a mess of a film which no one deserves to have inflicted upon them.

 

 ★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Masters of Horror: Dance of the Dead (2006)

Masters of Horror: Dance of the Dead (2006)

In a post-apocalyptic American society, the population has been decimated by nuclear terrorist attacks and flesh-dissolving nuclear fallout. Amidst the aftermath, a naive young teenager gets involved with a drug-stoked biker and his friends, against her overprotective mother’s protests. The teens hang out at the Doom Room, a punk rock nightclub, where re-animated corpses from the nuclear attacks perform courtesy of electric-charged flows and experimental drug-injected shots.

 

Based on a short story by Richard Matheson and adapted by his son, Richard Christian Matheson, Dance of the Dead was the third episode from the first series of Masters of Horror. I started covering them on the site a while back as they’re basically mini-feature films, with horror stories condensed into an hour-long episode format and helmed by a number of famous horror directors. Tobe Hooper is the ‘Master of Horror’ for this episode and directs a rather pedestrian entry, pretty devoid of any real meaty narrative. Though you could argue that was Hooper’s calling card for the majority of his career. After hitting it big with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Hooper made a few passable horror films (I really like The Funhouse) before descending into pure rubbish for many years as he tried and failed to recreate his past glories. Dance of the Dead isn’t going to enhance his reputation though it was better than most of his recent efforts.

With the episodes running under an hour each, time can’t be wasted but that’s precisely what Dance of the Dead does, spending far too much early on pottering around as if this is a full-length feature film. What’s worse, the script doesn’t go into any major exposition about what happened to cause the problems facing humanity, nor does it explain the current state of affairs, though there are lots of pointers and suggestions about how life is in this not-too-futuristic society. It gets the audience working their brains a bit more than usual, though if you’ve seen half as many post-apocalyptic films as I have, you’ll easily be able to join up all of the relevant dots. This is a nihilistic world, full of depravity and indulgence – it’s not clear just how quickly and why society has taken this turn for the worst, particularly with the teenage generation.

Hooper puts too much focus on the production values of the episode to appeal to a younger audience, perhaps trying to tap into a vein of rebellion, with the drugs, drink and fast cars showing a decadent lifestyle a lot of idyllic teenagers would grab at. I’m a rock and metal fan and love the music loud and heavy but Dance of the Dead’s soundtrack frequently just comes at you from all sides. It’s the same for the visuals, almost as if Hooper had been given access to a load of new filters and crazy plugins for his editing software and he goes overboard with them during the club scenes, adding frenzied cuts, strobe lighting and lots of unnecessary ghosting moments. It’s a pity because for every overblown effect, Hooper throws in some truly unsettling images, including the sight of still-twitching ‘zombies’ being dumped into a skip before being set alight by two laughing henchmen, and the club’s owner engaging in some kinky shenanigans with a naked zombie.

Dance of the Dead does feature some solid performances. Jessica Lowndes, as the innocent Peggy, not only looks gorgeous but manages to transform her character from being weak, naïve and curious to strong and independent by the end of the episode. Jonathan Tucker also manages to play off an odd combination of character traits, as the drug-addicted biker who sells blood to dodgy dealers but who is also heroic and chivalrous when dealing with Peggy. It’s a weird pairing but it works well to sell the story. Robert Englund does his best to save the episode from oblivion with his sinister MC lauding up the applause in the club, winding up the crowd with insults and creepily making out with zombified girls in the back room. Englund can go over the top and he ventures too far over the line a few times here, but the ‘showman’ scenes contrast with the shady businessman moments and this is where he reigns it in. He’s the best bit of the episode by a long shot.

 

Dance of the Dead isn’t a great Masters of Horror episode, with Hooper failing to recapture any former glory and laying down his persistent weaknesses for all to see. It’s loud, depressing, and above all, not very scary or exciting. It’s not like the source material, from acclaimed writer Richard Matheson, was bad, it’s just mis-handled by someone who left their horror legacy back in the 70s.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Joy Ride (2001)

Joy Ride (2001)

It started as a joke. Now the joke is on them.

Two brothers going on a road trip to pick up a girl decide to have some fun on the CB radio they had installed in their car. Assuming the role of ‘Candy Cane’, they pretend to be a lonely and attractive girl looking for love. When a trucker with the designation of ‘Rusty Nail’ begins to show an interest, the brothers decide to play a prank on him by arranging to meet him at a motel. When the prank backfires in a deadly way, the brothers realise they’ve gone too far. But Rusty Nail isn’t finished with them and proceeds to stalk and torment them.

 

Taking plenty of inspiration from such road terror flicks as The Hitcher and, most obviously, Duel, Joy Ride is an effective and mildly thrilling piece of fluff which is far better than it has any right to be. Coming slap bang in 2001, right amid the teen horror boom brought on by Scream and its numerous pop culture-referential clones, Joy Ride wisely decided to skip the self-awareness and goes back to basics. Joy Ride was renamed Roadkill in the UK, presumably due to the phrase ‘joy ride’ referring to criminals breaking into and stealing a car before going for a little spin. But I’m using the Joy Ride title here as it’s far better.

Producer and co-scripter J.J. Abrams was, back in the day, a jobbing screenwriter most famous for TV show Felicity and had a few films under his belt but nothing major – he was probably impatiently waiting like the rest of us for Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, unbeknownst to anyone that he would go on to take control of one of cinema’s biggest and most beloved franchises. Though the script has plenty of gaping plot holes – such as how Rusty knows so much about these characters and how he always seems to be one step ahead of them – the choices that the main characters make are generally good and logical. In one particular scene, instead of hanging around a motel room waiting for something to happen, the freaked-out teenagers simply jump into their car and speed off, which any sane person would have done in that situation. Abrams keeps things ticking and keeps the audience guessing. There are a few twists along the way here, nothing too shocking, but enough to stop the film from drifting into autopilot. There’s little chance of that happening though, as set piece follows set piece – Abrams mantra that audiences will let lapses in logic slide if everything else in the film is working clearly evident throughout the swift hour and a half running time.

Director John Dahl channels his inner Hitchcock as best he can, plying on the noir elements with a distinct twentieth century expression, giving his interiors green or red hues, setting a lot of the film at night, and dwelling on the seedier underworld of long-distance driving from motels with porn on the television sets to grubby gas stations. The initial prank sequence, where the brothers sit in the room next door and listen to what is going on, features excellent sound design, ramping up the tension without the audience seeing a thing. Dahl also throws in some excellent set pieces, particularly a chase inside a huge cornfield where Rusty uses the search lights on his truck to locate the hiding teenagers. In fact this cornfield set piece was part of the original ending (it was included on the DVD as a bonus feature and you can see why it was ditched, along with all of the other bits they originally planned) but new scenes were shot and added as the creative team struggled to find the right ending. The problem by this point is that the film keeps trying to top itself and up the ante every time the teenagers and Rusty lock horns. Joy Ride slowly begins to run out of petrol with too many false endings but has the good decency to finally quit whilst it’s ahead. The ending finally decided upon is satisfying enough to close the plot (although not enough to prevent a sequel).

Paul Walker stars in the same year as The Fast and the Furious hit the cinemas, with the filmmakers no doubt hoping to capitalise on his sudden stardom (though I’m guessing Joy Ride was made first and just sat around idly as the creative team messed around with the script and reshoots). Walker is ok in the role; he’s basically just plying the same Paul Walker character he did in The Fast and Furious – drives fast, shouts a lot and does little else. Steve Zahn tones down his goofiness and he and Walker play off each other perfectly as the brothers, with a little tension between them under the surface. Leelee Sobieski, third-billed, doesn’t even appear until about forty-five minutes into the film and then her role is simply to act as bait and become the damsel-in-distress. Arguably, she ruins the dynamic of the two male leads who had been working fine together and taking it in turns to take control of the situation.

Perhaps the best performance in Joy Ride comes from someone who is never seen – Ted Levine, famous for his role as Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (amongst many other films) provides the voice of Rusty Nail, only heard through the CB radio. His bass tones, full of intimidation and authority, are the perfect output for the truck driver, with Levine crafting Rusty Nail as an almost-supernatural menace whose actions speak just as loud as his words. The fact we never see the character in the flesh is immaterial – by just a voice alone, this character is more intimidating than 90% of cinematic slashers, psychopaths and madmen.

 

Joy Ride is highly underrated thriller which went under the radar a lot, most likely overshadowed in the same year by Jeepers Creepers which had a similar plot of friends travelling across country on a road trip being terrorised by someone/something. Is it a genre classic? No. Is it going to be on your repeat watch list? Probably not. Is it a great way to spend an hour and a half? You bet. Joy Ride is a pleasant surprising suspense thriller with enough tricks to keep you hooked.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Dead Pit, The (1989)

The Dead Pit (1989)

Drop In Anytime.

A renegade doctor is shot dead and entombed with his fiendish experiments in the basement of an abandoned wing of a mental hospital. Twenty years later, a mysterious woman is admitted with amnesia, and her arrival is marked by an earthquake which cracks the seal to the Dead Pit, freeing the evil doctor to continue his work.

 

That is only a half of the madness on offer in The Dead Pit, a cheesy 80s horror fest which goes by the letter of that decade’s genre output. Projecting itself across video store aisles with some classic 80s poster artwork of a zombie doctor appearing to lead an army of zombies behind him, this was the type of film young horror buffs, not old enough to rent it themselves, would have dreamt of watching as kids: gore, nudity, and violence in abundance. Of course, being young horror buffs, we would have had little awareness of everything else that makes a good film and so it’s nice to see how these films stack up in adulthood.

What The Dead Pit lacks in plot and coherent story, it makes up for in gore and fun. There’s so much more on offer here than just your generic zombie film. The script chucks in everything but the kitchen sink, sometimes too much for its own good, and tries to keep things from becoming too routine. Not sure how to resurrect the mad doctor from a twenty-year absence? Simple: just have a random earthquake. How are you going to kill zombies without resorting to the usual tropes? Simple: have a nun in there firing off holy water at them all. There are about a hundred and one questions you’ll have whilst watching and, whilst the film tries to answer a few as well as throw in some nifty twists, for the most part you’re better off ignoring them and going with the flow.

First time director Brett Leonard certainly does his best to belay the $350k budget and really crafts a decent mood and atmosphere, using an actual mental hospital for filming and making the most of some neat 80s-style red and blue lighting effects shining through the windows whenever some supernatural shenanigans is going on. The smoky green dead pit of the title, appearing during the finale, is also effective, as is the trademark 80s synth score, combining to give the impression that you’re having some lurid hallucination. Leonard gets to grips with some of the horror movie techniques such as having things pop up outside the frame of a shot, really making the most of every shot to craft suspense and a feeling of unease. Leonard would go on to direct The Lawnmower Man and the similar style and mood is evident there, just with a bigger budget.

The zombies don’t show up in the film until well over half-way through, so until then it’s just up to the mad doctor to provide the chills. With glowing red eyes and fairly tall and imposing, Dr Ramzi makes for a decent villain and starts to kill off a few of the orderlies and nurses walking around the hospital in the middle of the night. Ramzi likes his patients alive and kicking whilst conducting improvised surgery and so expect to see plenty of syringes into skulls, scalpels across throats and, in one of the film’s most impressive set pieces, a nice bit of scalping and cranium removal. The film is surprisingly gory for such a low budget flick – heads roll, faces melt, people are ripped apart, and the aforementioned surgery. The zombies don’t do as much damage as you’d expect them to do, nor do they look particularly ‘zombie-like’ having been rotting away for twenty years, but they pose a few problems for the survivors in the finale. Sadly, Ramzi’s unnecessary one-liners water down the character a bit, like some sub-par Freddy Krueger – the comedic tone is out of place.

Cheryl Lawson is the lead female and, in her first feature film, spends the majority of the running time parading around in the teeniest of white cut-off tank tops and knickers (and without a bra too), baring all and providing the requisite nudity – I’m not too sure whether her outfit is standard issue for an asylum though! It doesn’t hurt that she’s gorgeous and has a decent pair of lungs but she’s too inexperienced to hold the fort whenever the carnage goes away for a bit. That said, no one else in the cast really does anything to help her out. You’ve got a load of standard issue low budget horror performances, with some blandness, some droning, some hyperactivity and some overacting all visible. The cast all play it straight, with the exception of

 

The Dead Pit is a cheap schlocker, designed for some cheap chills, thrills and spills and nothing more. But there’s a little more substance to it than most of its ilk: it’s atmospheric, graphically gory and surprisingly-well shot for such a low budget genre offering.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆