Horror stalks the Louisiana wilderness and an Italian castle.
IN THE HELL OF DIXIE (2016)
When you put on a movie that has been labeled a slasher, you go into it with certain expectations. Those are expectations that writer/director Eric F. Adams' In the Hell of Dixie begins defying as soon as you realize that this movie has a running time of approximately 128 minutes. It also immediately defies expectations by not beginning with a kill sequence, or anything even remotely horror-related. Instead, the opening moments find small town police officer Ned Annison (Adams himself) stressing over whether or not the sheriff is going to promote him to sergeant.
This movie is in no hurry to get to the horror and slashing, either. It not only focuses heavily on Ned's interactions with his boss and competition, showing the entire process of his job interview for the sergeant position, but it also takes its time introducing us to a group of hunters who spend their downtime hanging out together at the Pig Ridge Hunting Club and doing a whole lot of bantering. Because of the down-home country locations, the southern accents most of the actors have, and the focus on how local law enforcement works, during the first quarter this movie comes off like it's going to be something along the lines of a Walking Tall-esque hixploitation film. More than a half hour has gone by before we get to the first slasher killing. Another half hour will go by before the action really kicks in.
I greatly admire the dedication Adams displayed in making this film, as it is the definition of a labor of love. It was shot on weekends over the course of 14 months, with a budget of $28,000 that came out of Adams' pocket. The actors worked for free and there were only three people on the crew. Adams saw this as his throwback to '80s slashers, and unlike a lot of filmmakers today he didn't use filter effects in post-production to try to capture an old school look, he actually went old school and shot on film, 16mm.
With that said, his feature directorial debut does have its problems, starting with the obvious pacing issues. 128 minutes is a good 25 minutes or so longer than any slasher should ever be, and it's clear when watching the film that it could have benefited from being trimmed down, and really could have been re-structured. Get to the point quicker, give the people what they want. Don't ask the audience to invest in an hour of chit-chat before getting to the good stuff.
That isn't to say that the dialogue is useless, however. Some very important information is conveyed through some of these conversations - which brings up a couple other problems. One, In the Hell of Dixie suffers from some shoddy audio, the bane of low budget productions. Two, it commits the sin of telling instead of showing. The story of the film is really kicked off by a confrontation over the hunting club property that puts a person in the hospital, but we don't see that confrontation. We're told about it. The characters do a lot of talking about it, but we should have seen it instead.
As the film goes on, the dark history of the Pig Ridge Hunting Club property is slowly revealed. Everything eventually makes sense and it's clear that Adams had a vision for the unconventional way in which his story is told, I'm just left wishing it had been told in a quicker, more simple fashion.
When some hunters take their one night stands out to the club's "Stabbin' Cabin", people do start getting stabbed with sharp implements, and from that point on, the second half of the film, the pace really picks up. As a strange woman in a white dress proceeds to turn the hunters into the hunted, the film becomes much more interesting and exciting, and Adams does well at delivering pay-offs to everything he set up in the first half.
The main issue lingering in the second half of the film is that there is no real hero or heroine here. No one is all that likable, even though most of them do come off as being very real. I'm a country boy myself, and have spent time around guys who were very much like the characters in this movie. Ned is given a moment that almost makes me think that we were meant to be rooting for this guy, but I was never on his side. He was always unpleasant and questionable, and this triumphant moment he's given just drives home the fact that he is not a good person.
In the Hell of Dixie is riddled with issues, and I'm left wondering what could have been if it had been structured as a more straightforward and typical slasher movie, because this really isn't like any '80s slasher you've ever seen. This is very much its own type of film, and there is some enjoyment to be derived from it, but it won't live up to most of your slasher expectations.
If you're a patient viewer with a soft spot for DIY horror, give In the Hell of Dixie a chance. If a micro-budgeted two hour slow burn doesn't sound like your idea of entertainment, this isn't likely to win you over.
The above review originally appeared on ArrowintheHead.com
JUDAS GHOST (2013)
Simon R. Green is the author of a series of novels called Ghost Finders. As of right now, there are six books in the series (Ghost of a Chance, Ghost of a Smile, Ghost of a Dream, Spirits from Beyond, Voices from Beyond, and Forces from Beyond), which follows a trio of "ghost finders" from the ghost busting Carnacki Institute as they go about the duties of their job.
With director Simon Pearce's Judas Ghost, the concept of the Carnacki Institute and its Ghost Finders has made its way into the cinematic world, but even though Green himself wrote the screenplay for this film, it seems - from the information I'm able to gather online; I never have read the books - like this is a bit of an odd adaptation. As you can see, there is no book in the series called Judas Ghost, and none of the characters from the books seem to have made it to the screen. There is no techie girl named Melody, no depressed telepath called Happy, no team leader JC. It's like this was just a low budget sample of the universe, a teaser to see if they could draw interest in a bigger, more faithful adaptation of the novels. At least, that the only explanation I can think of. But even then, why not use the characters? Maybe I'm missing something.
Regardless of the source material or the thought process behind it, Judas Ghost is in itself quite an interesting little horror movie. You can tell it wasn't based on a novel, because it is incredibly simple, a 76 minute movie set entirely (aside from some quick flashbacks and clips of past Carnacki Institute cases) inside one room. This room is a village hall, where a group of four Ghost Finders - a smarmy team leader, a telepath, a tech guy, and a former field agent who ran into some trouble and is now a lowly camera guy - report to investigate a suspected haunting. People here have recently started feeling uneasy, picking up bad vibes, and catching glimpses of mysterious figures. Within minutes, the Ghost Finders realize that they are dealing with a very powerful supernatural force, one which can manipulate their surroundings, plunging them into an unnatural night, making doors disappear and re-appear in different places, etc.
The supernatural action starts early in the running time and never stops from there as the Ghost Finders desperately try to figure out what's going on and how to stop it. It's a very intense situation, no typical cleansing of a building. The evil force at work seems to have transported the characters into a different dimension, making the scenario all the more intense and chilling. They could be trapped here forever, any attempt to escape could be fatal...
Take a chance on Judas Ghost and you'll be treated to a relentless haunting story that doesn't waste a single second.
CASTLE FREAK (1995)
The works of author H.P. Lovecraft have inspired a lot of film projects, but no director has ever been more successful with Lovecraft adaptations than Stuart Gordon was with Re-Animator and From Beyond. Gordon returned to the prose of Lovecraft for inspiration in making his film Castle Freak, although this one is a very loose adaptation of a Lovecraft short story called The Outsider.
The Outsider was written from the perspective of a man who has been imprisoned in a castle for his entire life and has never seen another person. Desperate for human contact, he escapes from the castle and crashes a nearby party, inadvertently terrifying the guests... and horrifying himself when he catches a glimpse of himself in a mirror.
Filmed at a castle in Italian owned by Full Moon head Charles Band, Castle Freak finds an American family - consisting of Re-Animator/From Beyond stars Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton as John and Susan Reilly, with Jessica Dollarhide as their blind teenage daughter Rebecca - inheriting a castle in Italy. As they move into the castle, intending to stay only until they can sell it, the recent past weighs heavily on their shoulders; the car accident that caused Rebecca's blindness and the death of their son, an accident that happened because John was driving drunk.
As it turns out, there is more darkness in the Reilly family history than that tragic event. John's late mother kept a man captive in the castle; a horribly disfigured, emaciated man who was kept chained up to be beaten mercilessly. Soon this man has slipped free of his bindings, proceeding to stalk the castle grounds, killing people who are unlucky enough to cross paths with him and creeping on Rebecca...
Castle Freak is well regarded among horror fans, but I've never been able to get into it as much as Gordon's previous Lovecraft films. There's something very off-putting about the look and tone of the film for me, and for much of the running time I just don't find it to be all that interesting. Gordon and screenwriter Dennis Paoli, who also worked on Re-Animator and From Beyond, did their best to build a feature's worth of substance around the idea of the short story, but the resulting film doesn't appeal to me all that much.
Castle Freak may not be something I feel the urge to watch with any regularity, but it does have its merits, and I can see why others would enjoy it. It is a well made film, with some stunningly horrific scenes involving "the freak" Giorgio. Gordon never shied away from the gross-outs, and he certainly didn't this time around, either. In fact, Giorgio is so tough to look at and some of the things he does are so disgusting, it gets to be a bit too gross for me. Also tough to watch are the intense dramatic scenes between the Reilly family members, which Combs and Crampton handle amazingly well.
If you want to watch a dark and dirty horror movie and don't mind being appalled, Castle Freak might be just what you're looking for.