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The VHS Graveyard’s post-October wrap-up continues with the first part of the fifth and final week, 10/26-10/28. Coming soon: the last half of the fifth week, our final thoughts on the October viewings and a complete listing of all films watched during the 31 Days of Halloween. Stay tuned, faithful readers: the finish line is finally in sight.

Monday, 10/26

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Manborg — I’m not sure why Steven Kostanski’s Manborg worked so much better for me than Francois Simard and Anouk Whissell’s similar Turbo Kid but it was a night and day difference. Purposefully cheesy, goofy, extremely low-budget and endlessly fun, Manborg reminded me of Hobo With a Shotgun, which is extremely high praise, indeed. Thematically similar to RoboCop, this story of a half-man/half-machine hero out to save our post-apocalyptic world from the vile clutches of Draculon and his legions of Hell minions is a fast, smart little thrill ride.

Full of endearing performances and characters (Ludwig Lee’s illiterate #1 Man is one of my favorite characters in forever, with the epic scene where he finally sounds out the word “grenades” being pretty awe-inspiring), Manborg is a loving throwback to the direct-to-VHS ’80s and promises big things from Kostanski in the future (the writer/director was also responsible for the outrageous Father’s Day, as well as the flat-out amazing “W is for Wish” segment of ABCs of Horror 2). Here’s to hoping he expands the included fake trailer for BioCop, an insane mishmash of Maniac Cop, Toxic Avenger and RoboCop that features the best ever use of “Please kill me,” into a full-length: with Kostanski behind the wheel, I bet that would be a real showstopper.

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Extinction — These days, it’s all but impossible to do anything new with zombie films so, in many ways, the best that fans can hope for are well-made films that attempt to eschew as many of the moldy tropes of the sub-genre as possible. Using that rubric, writer/director Miguel Angel Vivas’ Extinction is just about as good as modern zombie films get. Tense, beautifully shot (the film is gorgeously lit, especially for this type of fare) and grounded by a trio of sturdy performances in the persons of Matthew Fox, Burn Notice’s Jeffrey Donovan and youngster Quinn McColgan, Extinction doesn’t reinvent the wheel but does nothing to dilute its basic power.

While this often familiar tale of a trio of survivors trying to out-last a zombie outbreak in a harsh, frozen near-future can occasionally be a bit confusing (the need for a “twist” makes some of the relationships more convenient than realistic) and lightly sketched, it’s also refreshingly serious, very smart and quite thought-provoking. For fans of the living dead, Extinction proves that the sub-genre still has plenty of (un)life left in it.

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Let Us Prey — Extremely well-made but odd and rather off-putting, Brian O’Malley’s full-length debut is helped considerably by its strong performances and Piers McGrail’s cinematography but suffers quite a bit from an over-reliance on flashbacks, a ridiculously macho, chest-beating vibe and its frequent descent into pure innanery.

The story, itself, is familiar but reliable: it’s PC Rachel Heggie’s (the always awesome Pollyanna McIntosh) first day on the job in a remote, Scottish police station and she’s been put in charge of four prisoners, one of whom (the equally awesome Liam Cunningham) might or might not be the living incarnation of the Angel of Death. Once Cunningham’s Six starts to get into everyone else’s heads, however, and exploits their innermost fears, weaknesses and shames, the insanity and blood flow like a raging river.

Always more interested in being badass than making sense, Let Us Prey is too well-made to be easily dismissed but frustratingly short on depth, once the endgame is revealed. I’ve seen lots of films over the past several decades that have involved a mysterious person wrecking havoc on the unknowing inhabitants of an isolated establishment: Let Us Prey certainly isn’t the worst (McIntosh and Cunningham are actually outstanding) but it’s also nowhere near the best.

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Da Sweet Blood of Jesus — In a career that’s spanned three decades, it’s interesting to note that Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (a remake of Bill Gunn’s ’70s-era Ganja & Hess) is actually his first ever horror film. As such, I was genuinely curious to see what one of cinema’s premiere social commentators might do with a fright film, particularly one centered around the experience of black Americans in our current climate. Would this be a classic tale of an auteur out of his natural element or a bold, fresh new entry in a pretty formidable filmography?

As it turns out, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is more Twixt than Bram Stoker’s Dracula: a misguided, dull and disjointed attempt by a well-respected filmmaker to branch out and try something new. The problems here are legion: the film is drastically over-long, full of acting that ranges from rough to amateurish and the tone flip-flops dramatically from art-house serious (lots of long, silent, mournful shots) to over-the-top cornball, sometimes in the same scene. There’s very little trace of the revolutionary director behind such staples as Do the Right Thing or Malcolm X: Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is filled with awkward dialogue, nonsensical action and intentionally comic bits that completely miss their mark (a bit involving a glass of blood vs a glass of vodka is, for lack of a better word, really dumb).

It really is a shame, to be honest: parts of Lee’s film are genuinely beautiful, fusing moody atmospherics with evocative cinematography to produce something that almost recalls the glossy Euro-vamp flicks of Jean Rollin, albeit with much less of their trademark hallucinatory visuals. The film also employs a genuinely fascinating soundtrack: while the score is sometimes at odds with the action, it usually sets up an interesting parallel and is never less than thought-provoking. At the end of the day, however, Lee’s tale about almost/sort-of vampires who find love (almost/sort-of) is way to talky and stage-bound to ever be truly effective. After two back-to-back and largely unsuccessful remakes, looks like Spike needs to get back to the original stuff post-haste: the “Tim Burton career path” (patent pending) is the last road any filmmaker wants to get stuck on.

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TerrorVision — Equal parts weird, goofy and genuinely cool, oddball auteur Ted Nicolaou’s TerrorVision belongs in the rarefied company of such cult classics as Repo Man and Meet the Hollowheads: ’80s films that seemed to have been beamed to our poor, unsuspecting world from some insane galaxy light years away. To perfect the comparison, TerrorVision is actually about something being beamed to Earth from light years away: in this case, the “something” in question is actually a slimy, ravenous alien bent on liquefying and devouring as many tasty Homo sapiens as possible.

What makes TerrorVision so weird? Take your pick: the acting is so cartoonishly over-the-top that it’s hard to take anything (including the impressive gore effects) seriously; the punk-metal angle is approached in a similarly OTT manner, resulting in such glorious moments as Jon Gries’ O.D. character, who’s sort of the love child of Mad Max’s Toe Cutter and Otto’s dumbass friends in Repo Man; odd material like the swinging subplot is treated so matter-of-factly as to seem even odder; the script is full of incredibly strange exchanges like the one where O.D. tells Chad Allen’s Sherman (yes, the same Chad Allen that was in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman: that is correct) to “Kiss the boot, little man,” to which the youngster replies, “Kiss this, asshole!” and pulls a pistol.

In fact, one of the single, greatest things about TerrorVision is just how truly unpredictable it is: the film employs an absolutely bonkers “anything goes” philosophy which means that it’s never dull and, at times, is genuinely mind-blowing in its inherent weirdness. Embrace your freak flag with TerrorVision which proves the old adage “Some television is so awful that it can kill you…literally!”

Tuesday, 10/27

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Asylum Blackout — In many ways, Alexandre Courtes’ Asylum Blackout is the best John Carpenter film that the Godfather of Slashers never made. All of Carpenter’s trademarks, circa Assault on Precinct 13, are here: the low-key, realistic style; evocative electronic score; sustained feeling of tension punctuated by moments of shocking violence; mean, gritty vibe; claustrophobic setting; sense of helplessness; siege storyline…the whole thing might come across as needlessly worshipful if, in fact, Courtes’ film wasn’t so damn good.

This streamlined story of mental asylum staff trapped by the patients during a blackout is so good, in fact, that even some unnecessarily confusing plot points and a genuinely head-scratching twist ending (I’m not quite sure what happened, although I have my suspicions) don’t derail the proceedings. Asylum Blackout isn’t a particularly pleasant film, although it also never wallows in the grim events, preferring to focus on a few explosively gory, effective set-pieces to sell us on everything, part and parcel. With strong acting, a great sense of period detail (the late ’80s, in this case) and some truly ferocious moments, Asylum Blackout is both a sleeper and a keeper.

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Offspring — Like an even blunter, far less poetic Cormac McCarthy, author Jack Ketchum has been detailing the heart-stopping depravities of humanity for decades, culminating in a series of novels about a clan of feral cannibals who claim the coastline of Maine as their feeding ground. As a producer, Andrew van den Houten has been responsible for bringing several of Ketchum’s books to the silver screen including Offspring, which he also directed.

Prior to this year, I had seen and been thoroughly impressed by Lucky McKee’s The Woman, finding the film to be a bracing mixture of awesome and repugnant, filled with deliriously insane characters, relentless violence and razor-sharp social commentary. It would be a stretch to say that I enjoyed the film (there’s far too much intense torture, gore and sexual violence to ever make that claim) but lead Pollyanna McIntosh’s performance was an absolute stunner and the whole thing was just too smart to easily dismiss.

Van de Houten’s film serves as a direct prequel to McKee’s, detailing the events that led up to McIntosh’s mysterious wild woman being taken captive by the family of civilized savages. The film is a much cheaper, more amateurish affair than The Woman, bordering on crude at times (the children, in particular, often look more silly than scary) but it also possesses a tremendous amount of brutal, feral power. In many ways, Offspring is The Hills Have Eyes, Maine Edition, with all of the positives and negatives that the descriptor may carry. Above and beyond any of the film’s shortcomings, however, rises another outstanding performance by McIntosh, quickly proving herself to be the modern era’s Sigourney Weaver. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is never a bad thing.

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Dark Ride — A great setting can take a film pretty far and, for a while, the creepy, abandoned amusement park in Dark Ride seems ready and able to hoist the rest of the film on its shoulders and rumble straight to the finish-line. It doesn’t, unfortunately, which is certainly a bummer but probably not unexpected.

Until it falls apart considerably in the third act, Dark Ride comes across as a third-rate Funhouse, although that’s not quite the pejorative that it might sound. The aforementioned setting is fantastic, the tension is strong and the various references to classic films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre are fairly subtle and well-integrated: throw in some decent, Hatchet-like ultra-gore and you have the makings of a pretty nice little B-movie. The lead anchor here, unfortunately, ends up being the strictly by-the-book (and oftentimes much less so) acting and the thoroughly generic, bland killer. One of the cardinal sins of any slasher is a villain with no personality and Dark Ride’s mannequin-faced hacker just never makes an impression…on the viewer, at least. Strictly middle-of-the-road but certainly not the bottom of the barrel.

Wednesday, 10/28

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The Gift — Rock-solid, if never exactly amazing, writer-director-actor Joel Edgerton’s The Gift is a timely reminder that while we may be done with the past, the past may not be quite done with us. Essentially a three-character piece with added accoutrements, half of the fun here is watching the seamless ways in which Jason Bateman’s Simon, Rebecca Hall’s Robyn and Edgerton’s “Gordo” feint, prod and maneuver around each other.

The other half of the fun, of course, lies with the twisty, thorny plot, one of those Oldboy-type deals that unveils grim, new information with each unraveling layer. The Gift is a smart film, which is often its biggest asset: while the replay value may diminish a bit after an initial viewing (ala Seven or The Sixth Sense), there’s plenty to mull on here for repeat viewings including the poisonous nature of bullying, the terrible power of karma and that age-old realization that getting what you want can often be the very worst thing for you. Not really a horror film, in any strict sense of the term, but the psychological scarring is strong with this one, so I’ll allow it.

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Sleepaway Camp — Although it will probably always be best known for its eyebrow-raising final shot/surprise (which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling here, gentle readers), Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp is actually one of the better slashers to emerge during the post-Friday the 13th ’80s glut, although it’s nowhere close to its spiritual forebear in terms of quality. Featuring inventive kills, an odd tone that splits the difference between serious carnage and goofier frivolity and an energetic (if amateurish) cast, Sleepaway Camp has tons of personality that belies its ultra low-budget roots.

While the film can occasionally be rough going (pretty much anytime the awkward/goofy needle winds up in the red), the central story is strong and, while the ultimate denouement would undoubtedly raise all kinds of red flags in our modern times, it’s easy to see how it would have floored a more unenlightened era. Although the two sequels that followed were lots of fun (albeit so much more exponentially silly as to be horror-comedies rather than true slashers), the first film manages to tip the scales heavily on the side of the horror. Like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween and John Carpenter’s The Thing, Sleepaway Camp should be on every true horror fan’s must-see list: history lessons were never this fun!

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