By Jonathan Stryker

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Dec 23, 2007, 10:46 PM

Although it was released on DVD on June 26th, 2007, winter is the best time of the year to watch Bryan Norton's terrific short film PENNY DREADFUL which has snagged many awards from Shriekfest,  the First Run Festival, New York VisionFest, the Phoenix International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, and the Los Angeles Screamfest to name a few. 

PENNY DREADFUL begins in autumn and ends at Christmas time and therefore follows in the footsteps of several other classic Christmas horror films such as Curtis Harrington's WHO SLEW AUNTIE ROO?, a colorful spin on Hansel and Gretel; Bob Clark's ultra-scary BLACK CHRISTMAS about an anonymous lunatic making terrible phone calls from the attic of a sorority house while dispatching several sisters; and Lewis Jackson's insane CHRISTMAS EVIL featuring a sympathetic Brandon Maggart as a traumatized toy maker who thinks he is (and just may be) Santa Claus. 

For this project, Norton has assembled a talented cast that is no stranger to the genre.  Emily Vacchiano, who hawk-eyed viewers will recall from an episode of THE SOPRANOS, stars as Jessica, a newly-wed who inherits from her aunt a lovely Greenwich Village brownstone with her husband (Sebastian LaCause) only to discover from their realtor (Peter DuPre from EYES OF A STRANGER) that they will have to pay through the nose to cover the estate tax owed on it.  They decide to fix up the place and sell it instead in the hopes that they'll make out well financially from the sale.  During the night, Jessica is awakened by what sounds like an intruder.  When she investigates the noises, she sees the vision and sounds of Christmas and people screaming.  It's now apparent that the house is haunted.  Unlike her cinematic predecessors, Jessica is accepting of her invisible friends, and even thinks that it's kind of cool to have ghosts living among her.  Things are turned up a notch however when her husband is away on a business trip and Jessica is awakened by a man ascending the stairs (Warrington Gillette of FRIDAY THE 13TH PART II) with a shotgun.  She tells a friend (Tina Krause of made-for-video horror movie fame) and enlists the help of eccentric psychic Trudie Treadwell (Betsy Palmer of FRIDAY THE 13TH) who does her Tangina Barrons routine and gives the house a clean bill of health, confident that there are no evil spirits out to get Jessica.  This puzzles Jessica as she is convinced that something awful must have happened in the house. 

Things go from bad to worse and director Norton expertly sets up clichΓ©s and turns them on their head.  The film is colorfully photographed in 35mm and uses some CGI which never looks like CGI.  The wonderful score is by Daniel Belardinelli, a friend of Norton's who also scored his award-winning short TOMORROW'S BACON which is included on the disc as a supplement.  Other supplements include making the film which was originally titled BAD HOUSE (titled after Stephen King's name of the clichΓ© of a possessed house in his DANSE MACABRE), an interview with Betsy Palmer, trailers, an amusing blooper reel, and best of all a very informative and acerbic commentary with Norton and emcee Rob Galluzzo of Icons of Fright.  Norton provides great insight into the making of PENNY DREADFUL: how the film came about; where it was filmed; how the shooting schedule stretched on much longer than originally planned; how directorial decisions must be made extemporaneously; and the etymological origins of the film's title  In fact, the original tagline was "Let's scare Jessica to death," a reference to one of the best and most obscure underrated thrillers of the 1970's.

In all, this is a first-rate package, and a terrific lesson in short filmmaking.  For $15, you cannot go wrong.  It's a must for horror film fans.  Amazon.com has the special edition of this title. 



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