FAMILY SECRET SHALLOW CREEK CULT RISE OF THE SCARECROWS LOVERBOY DV (VOL. 1, 2 & 3)
Color, 2009, 105m.
Directed by Geno McGahee
Starring Logan Lopez, Crazy Carol Robinson, Jose Antonio Rivera, Forris Day Jr., Leeann Aubuchon-Swimm
Color, 2012, 70m.
Directed by King Jeff
Starring King Jeff, Gorio
Color, 2010, 80m.
Directed by Manuel Eiras
Starring Dani Faith Leonard, Brook Thompson, Oscar Villalobos
Color, 2005, 95m.
Directed by Geno McGahee
Starring Anthony Brown, Steven Joseph Adams, Cedric Howard, Mark Scarborough
THE 28TH DAY: THE WRATH OF STEPH
Color, 2013, 95m.
Directed by Zachary Scott
Starring Kate Nichols, Jodie Grundin, Rollin Blanton
Color, 2012, 91m.
Directed by Erica Summers
Starring Lauren Reynolds, Jessie LaBorn, Noah Schnacky, Kaitlyn Ale, Mildred Ciraco, Vincent Ciraco
Color, 2013, 84m.
Directed by Geno McGahee
Starring Tim Pieciak, Forris Day Jr., Charlotte Lewis, Brent Northup
PHANTOM OF THE WOODS
Color, 2013, 101m.
Directed by Michael Storch
Starring Delaney Hathaway, J.R.S. Storch, Richard Hackel
Color, 2013, 62m./56m./66m.
Directed by Evan Jacobs
Starring Evan Jacobs, Isaac Golub, Brian Balchack, Courtney Oquist, David Patterson
Cinema Epoch (DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC)
SHALLOW CREEK CULT
RISE OF THE SCARECROWS
DV (VOL. 1, 2 & 3)
Fans of SOV (that's "shot on video" to the uninitiated) horror features should find themselves in hog heaven with the three-volume, five-disc series called The Scared Stiff Collection. Volume one packs in four films on two discs, kicking off with the fun DIY regional horror film Family Secret, hailing from Massachusetts filmmaker Geno McGahee. We open up with a screaming woman tearing through the woods with an assailant right behind her wielding a knife, all accompanied by pounding synth music, so you know exactly what's in store already. The packaging tags it as "one of the only Illuminati-themed horror movies," which is probably true; in any case, what we have here is the story of a family matriarch, Phyllis, whose death brings together her squabbling family members who sit around saying things like "What if I shove an ice cube up your ass? Would that chill you out?" As it turns out thanks to lingering family nightmares, granny was a real sadist who enjoyed tormenting her spawn by doing things like breaking the neck of a kid's pet dog -- and even worse, she was rumored to be a child murderer. The only remotely likable member of the family, reporter Geno (Day Jr.), tries to put his skills to use as the others are horribly picked off one by one by a psycho in a granny mask, but can he save himself in the process? If you're a fan of regional slasher films (think Crinoline Head, The Last Slumber Party, etc.), this is plenty of acid-tongued fun with a sometimes wildly inappropriate rock soundtrack an incredibly large cast for such a low budget film. Some of the one liners also tread the line into pure silliness at times (including a real groaner during the climax), but the plot twists are actually well executed and lead to a rousing finale in the woods. The Illuminati thing is pretty goofy if you're trying to tie it to any real-life rumors about the shadowy organization, but it's definitely a different sort of backdrop for a slasher film with a fun stinger in the tale at the end, too. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer looks pretty good for a local production, and the sound is actually better recorded than most of its ilk.
Sharing space on the first disc is the found footage zero-budget offering, Shallow Creek Cult. At first this one sticks with the Blair Witch formula via random interviews with locals about the ominous occurrences in the title location, after which we switch to brothers Getty and Jessie, who would drive out with their grandfather to the Louisiana creek back in their childhood. Before he died, grandpa requested to have his ashes scattered into the Shallow Creek Pond, which means a 90-mile drive to fulfill his last wish. Once they arrive, they're assaulted by increasingly bizarre elements like, well, crazy cultists feasting on the flesh of naked female victims. They wind up holed inside a house featuring a video deck with footage that holds a key to the mystery, while cultists wearing black robes and skull masks try to make it their last night on earth. King Jeff and his real-life brother, Gorio, actually do a solid job holding the film together as the only actors on screen for 95% of the running time, which never wears out its welcome at a tight 70 minutes. Keep your expectations modest and there's plenty of fun to be had here, especially with the last 15 minutes as the film takes a welcome positive detour compared to the "kill 'em all" approach common to most found footage titles. The film is presented in non-anamorphic 1.78:1 framing and looks exactly like what it is, a homemade production shot for a couple grand on consumer cameras in the woods. All in all, these two make for a thematically similar pairing and kick things off on a promising note.
Next up we move to disc two with another found footage film, the far slicker Evil Legacy (originally shot under the title Ixtab), which trots out an arsenal of gimmicks for its structure like office video communicators and surveillance cameras to kick off the story of possibly supernatural disruptions at the office of Sarah (Leonard), who's due to reunite with a bunch of high school friends. Home security cams catch everything that happens when all the pals get together for the weekend, with the production's Spanish origins betrayed by a couple of very thickly-accented cast members. In the best Paranormal Activity tradition, we get lots of scenes of people sitting around talking, hanging out in the kitchen, and screaming and freaking out over creepy voices emanating off screen. The use of a traditional music score under the footage gives it a particularly odd feel, while the security camera angle varies between effective to annoying depending on the execution. The tag at the end is pretty amusing though if you can ignore the otherwise predictable downbeat nature of the climax; if you're a found footage completist this is far from the worst of its kind, but those who hate the format will find it tough going. The anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer is one of the sharpest of the bunch, and the stereo sound mix is very, very aggressive.
Volume one rounds out with another Geno McGahee offering, Rise of the Scarecrows, another contribution to the small but beloved subgenre of films about the murderous farm fixtures. This one has actually been out on DVD before courtesy of Tempe Entertainment, who issued it in 2009 (four years after it was completed), and what you get here appears to be a straight port of that full frame transfer. The fact that it was shot on a very low grade camera doesn't help things, and the audio using the direct camera mic means there's plenty of, ahem, room ambience in the sound mix; add in some very amateurish performances and you have a messy, highly amusing film for your next movie party. Basically we just have a bunch of irritable, foul-mouthed people in a Massachusetts down driving around, yelling at each other in offices, pelting each other by the side of the road, and basically acting like complete jerks. That even includes the local sheriff, who dumps a poor hitchhiker off by the side of the road to get murdered in the opening scene. As it turns out, the town has pact with some killer scarecrows, and the latest prospects are some guys passing through town whose night of camping in the area instead sends them on a chase from the bloodthirsty scarecrows. Overall the second disc doesn't really match up to the fun of the first, but SOV fans should still find them worth a peek. Trailers are also included for Family Secret, Rise of the Scarecrows, and two different ones under the Ixtab title.
Volume two leads off on a strong note with The 28th Day: The Wrath of Steph, an interesting addition to that academic subgenre favorite, the menstrual horror film (which includes the likes of Carrie, The Company of Wolves, and Ginger Snaps). Poor Steph (Grundin) wakes up in the middle of nowhere with a bandage over her bloodied cheek, and upon returning home she finds out her boyfriend, Tom (Jush Allen), left her for dead after they were attacked by what appeared to be a maniacal possessed woman wielding a nasty tree branch. Unfortunately Tom winds up dead while they're engaging in make up oral sex, which sends a terrified Steph to seek help from Liz (Nichols), who managed to escape a similar attack. It turns out Steph is possessed by a spirit known as "Evil Lord Zasulground," who imbues his vessels with telekinetic powers and sends them on murderous rampages at the end of their menstrual cycle. Though anyone expecting a professional horror film will be put off by the micro budget aesthetic and uneven acting, there's a lot of value here in the girl power angle and the fact that it centers around a friendship between two women, a rarity in the modern horror genre. Unfortunately that also means it devolves into pure silliness at the end (I won't even try to describe it here), but let's just say it tries to move from Evil Dead territory into Death Proof instead and hits a major speed bump along the way. This marks the first official wide release of the film on home video following a VOD release and a brief appearance as an MOD disc on Amazon, and it looks bright and clear throughout with better production values than most homegrown product. The sound mix is uneven at times with a music track that occasionally blasts far louder than the dialogue, but that's the nature of the beast with these things.
The quasi-feminist horror theme continues on the same disc with Loverboy, which is also shot on video but framed for 2.35:1 scope for a change. Coffee shop employee Lauren (Reynolds) has just gotten through an agonizing break up and doesn't want to enter another relationship. However, a coworker goads her into going to a party where she strikes sparks with Brandon (LaBorn), a seemingly nice guy who still utters occasional alarm bells like "I'm the one your mom warned you about." The two start dating, but not all of her friends are taken in by Brandon's charm. That suspicion turns out to be well founded when his violent streak starts to emerge, intent on preserving his love life by any means necessary. Slickly crafted by director Erica Summers, a self-professed horror fan behind other films like Rag Doll and Mister White, this one plays for its first hour more like one of those domestic unease films from the '90s like Fear or Poison Ivy before swerving into full-on slasher mode for the big finale. It also breaks with its predecessors via a pretty shocking ending that won't be spoiled here, but it's bound to catch many viewers off guard. The Florida production looks great and manages to wring a good deal out of its limited budget, despite some obviously amateur homegrown talent in a few of the supporting roles. Give this one a shot for sure.
On to disc two, we have the third offering in the series from Geno McGahee, the horror anthology Scary Tales. It's easily the most polished of his three films and probably the best even if it doesn't have the full-tilt berserk quality of Family Secret. Basically it's a pretty good option for those who can't get enough horror omnibus options with a nice variety of tones and monstrous threats. Four longtime friends get together at a cabin one of them is about to lose in a divorce, and the angle of middle-aged regret gives the collection a slightly different spin than your usual "teens telling creepy stories at a slumber party" format. The first one concerns a hot-tempered bully named Richard who threatens everyone around him but gets the tables turned when a stranger in black shows up and makes him sort of deal you can't understand because the dialogue track keeps dropping out for some reason leaving only music and sound effects. The fact that over five minutes has almost all the dialogue wiped out pretty much wrecks the whole story, so you may want to skip over this one to the next tale in which an abused woman finds herself at the mercy of her abusive stepfather. She's saved from a violent fate by her cousin who stabs the jerk to death, leaving them on the run from what looks like a thrill-kill incident. After camping out for the night in the middle of the woods, they make their way to a strange house where a spooky mother and daughter offer their hospitality but might have a more sinister agenda in mind. This one's actually quite good with a nice sense of foreboding and a really creepy finale, complete with a nicely shot little stinger at the end that would've done Dan Curtis proud. In story number three, unemployment and the threat of foreclosure force three guys into a high-stakes game of poker that turns increasingly nasty and eventually leads to a brutal murder by baseball bat. That's just the beginning though as the disposal of a body leads them smack into delayed payback from beyond the grave. This one has a strong E.C. Comics/Creepshow vibe with a lot of black humor and a pretty good sick joke payoff at the end. The fourth and most overtly horrific story concerns the Devil's Bridge, a rusty old landmark no one dares to cross because of the number of deaths it's caused over the years. One skeptical lad decides to accept a dare to cross the bridge and thinks it would help him get an A in his sociology class, so he and his girlfriend consult a paranormal researcher to find out more. The ensuing history of the bridge is laid out in a surprisingly ambitious sequence spanning its macabre highlights for over a century, which is enough to spur a fateful trek across the bridge with a video camera in tow to record it for posterity. However, the true nature of the bridge only manifests itself later to all three characters. The shock ending to this one isn't quite as jolting as it should have been, but it's a nice stab at a bit of local folklore creation and a good way to bring things to a head before the obligatory wraparound twist ending. Again the transfer is non-anamorphic 1.78:1 (which is pretty inconceivable for something shot in 2013), but again you work with what ya got here. It looks fine, though the sound mix is hit and miss and that aforementioned lengthy stretch of missing dialogue is a bummer.
The second disc of volume two closes out with another superior selection, Phantom of the Woods, another scope yarn and a twisty variation on the usual country horror tropes. A malicious presence is manifesting in the woods and terrorizing locals, leading the police to wonder whether there's some kind of burgeoning hysteria at work. Newcomer Lana (Hathaway) is a young woman getting over a recent trauma trying to get away from it all, and she strikes up a friendship with loner Jake (Storch), who prefers sketching to the company of others. Lana's amateur photography hobby also comes in handy when the escalating violence of the area (including a nasty hammer attack) seems to be connected to whatever's in the woods, with a creepy black smoke also signaling the arrival of something evil indeed. An afternoon trip into the woods for our intrepid pair soon turns into a night of unrelenting horror. The Kickstarter-backed Indiana project makes for an impressive calling card for director Michael Storch, who imbues both of the well-acted leads with such likable personalities that you're rooting for them to make it safely to the end of the film. It also has that regional feeling of instability and doom you often found in '80s productions (a la the underrated Mutant), a quality that will hopefully continue in the future work of everyone involved. Again this volume contains trailers for all four features.
Volume three simplifies things considerably by paring down to one disc with three features, DV, which was originally conceived as one film but wound up split into three parts. You'd guess from the title that this might be a cash-in on the wildly uneven V/H/S films and their imitators, but it's really one continuous, linear storyline charting the self-shot exploits of a serial killer named James (Evan Jacobs) and the aftermath of his video records. The first film spends 62 minutes with him essentially delivering an on-and-off monologue following his murders, driving around discussing his personal psychosis and his own warped attempts at grappling at some sense of normalcy as he slides down quickly on a self-destructive path. The second film literally picks up the exact second the previous one left off as the footage falls into the hands of an anonymous guy who has some major violent psychological issues of his own. Most of this one takes place in his basement, though it eventually switches to a car where he meets his ultimate fate. Finally the third part switches to a two-character piece with James's brother getting his hands on the tapes and combing through them, much to the growing consternation of his wife. This one's actually the most interesting of the bunch as it basically adapts an Edgar Allan Poe approach to the found footage template, resulting in a pretty nifty resolution that loops back around to part one for good measure. Considering this all amounts to three hours of your time, bear in mind that this is not your average serial killer fare as there's really no on-camera violence or exploitative material here at all. Instead it's a gritty, zero-budget look at psychological disturbance with very committed but potentially repugnant performances, depending how far you're willing to go with the subject matter. All three are shot full frame on very low-grade cameras, so the presentation here reflects that about as well as possible. Trailers for all three parts comprise the sole extras, which is a shame as it would be interesting to hear what Jacobs (who directed the trilogy and also performed editing and scoring duties) thought about the project as it evolved.