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Jonathan Stryker (Facebook); Jonathan Stryker (Twitter)

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Dec 7, 2013, 9:0 PM

Gabriel Bologna's The Black Waters of Echo's Pond comes across as a strange concoction.  For one thing, it doesn't seem able to make up its mind as to whether or not it is a straight out horror film or if it is meant to be played as a tongue-in-cheek, winking- at-the-audience type of movie.  My guess would be the former given the overall creepiness that the film admirably attempts to create, though not always successfully.  Like the new DVD and Blu-ray release of All the Boys Love Many Lane (2006), which also deals with a similar theme of male and female teens going off to a large manse with the hopeful promise of sex, the film was shot a good number of years ago, probably around 2007/2008.  To me, still the only recognizable performers are Robert Patrick, Danielle Harris, James Duval, Electra Avellan and Elise Avellan.  Black Waters starts off promisingly enough but tends to drag at times despite lasting the usual hour and-a-half.  It ends with a denouement that any seasoned horror film fan will see coming, but that is not to say that the film is a total loss as there is much to admire here, especially the fairly cool title and the even cooler old-style '70's-inspired movie poster.  

It starts with a prologue wherein a group of archeologists are excavating a dig in 1927 and this, like in William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973), unleashes an evil spirit.  Flash forward 80 years to the same location whereupon a big house owned by Pete (Robert Patrick) is built right on the spot where the spirit was discovered.  Pete loans the house to family friend Anton (Arcadiy Golubovich) and his wife Erica (Elise Avellan).  The couple is joined by Anton's best friend Josh (Nick Mennell) and his girlfriend Renee (Electra Avellan) who also used to be Anton's girlfriend.  But, hey, everything's cool, right!  Um, no!  Not only will this situation prove to turn the cabin into a pressure cooker of accusations, festering resentment and nasty secrets, but the evil spirits brought forth by the board game that Anton finds in the basement will make them wish that they broke out Trivial Pursuit instead.    

Rick (James Duval) is a mutual friend who shows up uninvited and incurs frowns and mean looks from just about everyone, especially Kathy (Danielle Harris) who really has it in for him as she blames him for the drunk driving death of her brother.  As they play the board game, accusations and dares flip flop and eventually the board possesses the participants.  It becomes difficult at times to gauge if what we are seeing is real or a game within a game along the lines of David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999). 

The performances for the most part are quite good.  Electra Avellan and Elise Avellan give good dramatic turns, yet I still cannot tell the two of them apart - will one of these ladies get a tattoo somewhere noticeable, please?   Danielle Harris fans will love her here as she not only gives a good performance but she looks very sexy, too. 

There is also a strange half man, half beast creature running around...

The film's transfer on Blu-ray is a colorful affair.  The sound is also very strong and typifies what you would expect from a modern film.  There is an extended alternate beginning included as an extra, although I really would have liked a commentary with some of the behind-the-scenes folks to give us a rundown of the film's origin and its problematic history. 

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Blu-ray Review: HALLOWEEN
Jonathan Stryker (Facebook); Jonathan Stryker (Twitter)

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Dec 3, 2013, 1:0 PM

It seems like it would be an exercise in redundancy to recap the plot synopsis of John Carpenter's seminal 1978 film Halloween.  The film has been theatrically released, aired on cable and network television, and released in virtually every home video format in existence at one time or another. Its latest incarnation is in the form of a Blu-ray disc (for the second time in this format) which contains a brand-new commentary featuring both John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis as they watched the film together. This is different from the original commentary which consisted of a feature length discussion culled from separate comments from John Carpenter, Jamie Lee Curtis and the late Debra Hill.  This appeared on both the Criterion Collection laserdisc in 1994 and the Anchor Bay DVD in 2003. 

This new Blu-ray features a stunning transfer supervised by cinematographer Dean Cundey and the film has never looked better; television and radio spots; the theatrical trailer; the additional twelve minutes of footage shot for the television airings in both 1981 and 1982 (it would have been nice if they had incorporated this footage into the film in an alternate version by way of seamless branching, but I suppose that would have been more expensive); the On Location: 25 Years Later featurette; and a new featurette cleverly called The Night She Came Home which runs nearly an hour and features a camera crew following Jamie Lee Curtis from Los Angeles to a Horror Hound Weekend convention in Indianapolis, Indiana, the one and only convention that she has done for this film. Unless you were actually at that show, you may not have the patience to sit through the featurette in its entirety.  However, these one-hour highlights give the viewer who may not have ever attended a horror film convention before an idea of what goes on, the type of people who frequent this sort of thing, and how genuinely nice Jamie Lee Curtis is towards her fans.

It also includes an 18-page essay with black and white on-set photos by photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker depicting the shooting of the film.

Recommended for die-hard fans of this now classic film!


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Jonathan Stryker

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Oct 13, 2013, 8:0 AM

The latest Danielle Harris film to hit DVD is SHIVER (2012), a creepy independent film shot on location in Portland, OR and in and around Los Angeles, CA, specifically at a faux Cadillac Jack's diner in Sunland, CA, which is actually a movie set with an adjacent Pink Motel set situated on 9457 San Fernando Road in Sun Valley, CA for use in films.  As the film opens, a schlubby middle-aged man named Franklin Rood, played off-kilter by Australian actor John Jarratt (he played the diabolical Mick Taylor in 2005's stomach-turning Wolf Creek and its forthcoming sequel), sits down nervously at the counter and feigns reading a menu. 

The waitress, Kathy (Nikita Sesco), is clearly half his age and he finds her impossibly desirable, fantasizing about frolicking with her and exploring her body.  When he asks her out to a movie, he is politely rebuffed and storms off like a child.  His adolescent-minded feelings are shattered, and he doles out a head bashing in the parking lot after she locks up the diner for the night, leaving her dead.  The murder itself is not graphic (for the most part it is off-screen), but the look on his face is truly disturbing.      

Twelve years later in Portland, Oregon, the city is on edge due to a serial killer (called The Gryphon) being on the loose. Wendy Alden (reliable scream queen Danielle Harris) is harassed by her mother (Valerie Harper) to ask her boss for a raise since she can no longer help support her daughter. 

Her friend Jeffrey (Shane Applegate) wants to be more than friends; when Jeffrey takes the Wendy out to dinner and offers that she stay with him that night, Wendy attempts to assure him that she will be fine.  If you're a genre fan, you will know right away that she is about to receive a visit by The Gryphon, aka Franklin, the loony from the pre-credits sequence.  When Franklin arrives in her home and surprises her, he reconsiders killing Wendy as she begins to behave in a way that he is not used.

She talks to him differently than the other young women he has killed up thus far and he notices this.  Franklin suffered bullying and humiliation during his childhood and this partially explains his killing streak towards women.  Through his own delusional mind, he convinces himself that he can make her love him.  In the meantime, the police are unable to adequately protect Wendy: two of the dumbest police officers I have ever seen in a movie are both killed by Franklin within seconds of each other, and I almost found myself applauding in his favor.  Casper Van Diem is the lead detective and Rae Dawn Chong portrays his partner, however the script does not give her much to do.  Wendy attempts unsuccessfully to escape Franklin's clutches even after he manages to extricate her from a police station under the guise of dressing as a fellow officer.    

The film is nowhere near as suspenseful as I would have liked, but the story kept me watching. The others films that I would compare this too would be recent horror outings such as CHOOSE (2010) and ATM (2012). SHIVER is a step above these films and keeps you focused until the final frame.  It does require a suspension of disbelief to succeed.  Mr. Jarratt has a unique ability to play unrepentant psychopaths, his turn as Mick Taylor in Greg McClean's aforementioned WOLF CREEK brought to life one of the most frightening and vicious psychos that the cinema has seen in quite some time.  Here he is also mean, but for different reasons.  In WOLF CREEK, he was bent on inflicting pain on others for his own pleasure.  Here, his Franklin is a broken, rejected and unhappy soul for reasons we don't know.  He is trying to trying to connect with someone and spirals out of control when he cannot.  Valerie Harper gives a good performance as Wendy's mother, although she only appears in two scenes.  Danielle Harris is also quite good and proves a great adversary for Franklin. 

The DVD itself is bare-bones and contains trailers for ABERRATION and THE LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT OF ROSALIND LEIGH.  It would have been nice to have had some extras, such as interviews and a commentary with the cast; Ms. Harris is always so fun and bubbly when talking about her career and the onscreen action.  Worth seeing for fans of Mr. Jarratt and Ms. Harris. 



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Jonathan Stryker (Twitter)

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Aug 20, 2013, 6:40 AM

Actress Danielle Harris steps behind the camera this time around for what is being touted as her feature film directorial debut.  AMONG FRIENDS (2012) is a thriller for genre fans that goes by the clever tagline "This dinner party's gonna to be killer".  The Internet Movie Database lists MADISON, a vignette that appears in a 2008 feature called PRANKS which includes two other short films each directed by actresses Ellie Cornell (HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS & HALLOWEEN 5: THE REVENGE OF MICHAEL MYERS) and Heather Langenkamp (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET & A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET PART III: THE DREAM WARRIORS), as Ms. Harris's first professional directing job.  To date, PRANKS has not seen the light of day as a DVD release, which is curious given the talent involved in its creation.  Hopefully a DVD release is somewhere on the horizon.  NOTE: PRANKS is not to be confused with the alternate title of 1982's THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. 

AMONG FRIENDS tells the story of Bernadette (Alyssa Lobit) who is hosting a murder mystery party. She has invited Marcus (Christopher Backus), Melanie (Jennifer Blanc), Adam (AJ Bowen), Jules (Brianna Davis), Sara (Kamala Jones), and Blane (Chris Meyer) to her house for what promises to be a fun night playing out a game and trying to guess who the killer is.

All of the participants are done up in 80s retro hairstyles: Melanie sports big hair, Adam dons a mullet, and Jules looks like she fell out of a video by A Flock of Seagulls.  A limo driver (Kane Hodder) escorts the gang to Bernadette's house. As each one of them exits the limo, he comments on them individually with an improvised litany of comical insults that elicit both smirks and laughs. 

Once inside, the group gathers in Bernadette's kitchen for some friendly small talk.  They are instructed to look for clues throughout the house and as they do we become aware of some less-than-stellar personality traits, such as Adam's grapple with cocaine despite trying to be sober for two months.     

Everyone is instructed to sit at the table and dine prior to the game, however almost simultaneously they all become numb below the waist and unable to walk.  Terrified, they all demand an explanation.  Bernadette, the sole person unaffected, has spiked their drinks and has something macabre in store for them.  Tying everybody up to their chairs with duct tape, Bernadette turns on everybody and accuses all of them of egregious behavior.  To prove it, she directs their attention to a large-screen television with footage of most of them that was surreptitiously recorded months earlier. Adams's out-and-out rape of their friend Lily, and Sarah and Jules getting it on while Marcus pleasures himself from afar are just a few of the things that turn Bernadette's stomach to the point that she administers punishment by cutting off one of the women's hair - along with her scalp.  Given that Adam committed rape, you can only imagine what his punishment entails.

She introduces ground rules which inevitably lead to a subsequent humiliation and torture of all held hostage at the dinner table. There is a twist at the end of all this, and seasoned genre fans will see it coming from a mile away, however this should not dissuade fans as Ms. Harris proves herself a capable director.    

The basic plot of AMONG FRIENDS calls to mind David Slade's HARD CANDY (2005) in which a man is lured by a young woman under the pretense of sex, only to be put through the ringer when she spikes his drink and calls him out for preying on underage girls and proceeds to make his life a living hell.  In Ms. Harris's film, a lone woman (a doctor with access to medication, no less) turns the table (in this case, the dinner table) against her friends who disgust her.  Alyssa Lobit is a striking actress and she imbues Bernadette with a sinister slant that would make John Doe of David Fincher's SE7EN (1995) smile.  The rest of the cast is also very good, and you have to be in you're going to spend ten shooting days strapped to a chair for hours upon hours. 

Ms. Harris makes a cameo appearance in her trademark clown outfit from HALLOWEEN 4 in a sequence when the drugged out Jules is hallucinating that she's in a movie.  Michael Biehn also adds to the madness in this sequence. 

The film also offers visual references to Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING (1980) and Adrian Lyne's FATAL ATTRACTION (1987). 

The DVD comes with a commentary that consists of director Harris and actor Bowden and actress Blanc.  Their disposition is cheerful and fun to listen to.  Ms. Harris is always gracious at her convention appearances and her personality is likewise as she discusses the rigor (mortis?) of making a film in a confined space.  That being said, I do wish that her comments discussed more of the challenges of directing under these circumstances. 

A word of warning: if you hate seeing people vomit and drool (as I do), close your eyes at the 33:30 mark and the 38:20 mark respectively and count to ten before opening them again! 


AMONG FRIENDS can be ordered here and the official site is here. 



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Aug 4, 2013, 12:0 PM

Sam Raimi's THE EVIL DEAD (1982) and its sequels are widely revered among genre fans.  The original film, which was shot in late 1979 and early 1980 and offers up five characters who all suffer from outdated wardrobe choices, is not what I would consider a terrifying film by any means, but it is certainly entertaining.  It was one of the first (if not the first) films to put several characters in a confined space and force them to deal with a violent and demonic force, spraying the cabin and the screen with lots of blood and gore.  Like George A. Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979), THE EVIL DEAD was released unrated and saw much of its success on the nascent home video revolution of the mid-1980's.  Youngsters like myself who are now ensconced in middle-age used to get a thrill when visiting local video stores to pick up horror films on display, eager to find that Next Big Find that would entertain us and our friends.  In the days since then, Mr. Raimi's film has been released on VHS, laserdisc, and DVD (no less than seven times in this format) and like so many other classics, it was bound to be remade. 

Mia (Jane Levy) is a heroin addict and is taken to the family cabin by her friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), Olivia (Jessica Lucas), and her unreliable brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) and dog (the first one to die, of course.  See Tobe Hooper's EATEN ALIVE (1976) for further cliches).  Now, I know that films require a suspension of disbelief to succeed, but if your younger sister were a heroin addict, would you take her to a location like this in an effort to wean her off of the drug?  Is that even possible under the circumstances?  Don't they still have methadone clinics?  A cabin in the woods is the last place I would want to be. 

A foul stench emanating from the basement reveals a trap door under the rug smeared with blood.  Eric exclaims, "Oh, can that be blood?" Well, that would be some coincidence if it wasn't!  Eric is portrayed by Lou Taylor Pucci, the actor who played the aloof and disgusted son of Chris Isaak in Gregor Jordan's THE INFORMERS (2008). Somebody should have informed him that he needed a haircut in this movie.  They all venture into the basement to find animal corpses in various stages of decay, and if they were smart they would bolt - but then there would be no movie.  Eric manages to be even more annoying than Mia's brother David; not only does he go wandering about and sticking his nose into places that he shouldn't, but he also manages to get his hands on the Book of the Dead called Naturom Demonto and fails to heed its warning by reading the very names out loud that should never be spoken.

Jessica Lucas plays Olivia and she should really go back to Melrose Place. She isn't given much to do here except remind everyone that they really need to help Mia. Although everyone is pretty much dismembered and ravaged, they all come back by the end of the film.   

EVIL DEAD has no doubt divided diehard evil dead enthusiasts into the "love it" or "hate it" camps.  There is plenty of gore to go around by the bucket load, and the fact that this movie earned an "R" rating whereas the original was released unrated illustrates how times have changed and how bloodshed has become far more acceptable now whereas sexual intimacy is still considered a big no-no. 

There are efforts to startle the audience when the characters are possessed by the demon in question. Propositions for sexual fulfillment are a throwback to Reagan McNeil's equally vile vituperations in William Friedkin's superior THE EXORCIST (1973), however in 2013 even the most explicit profanity fails to shock.  The omni-present 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 sedan from Mr. Raimi's original film makes a cameo appearance (whether or not this is a prop or the actual car from the film original is something that perhaps the Blu-ray commentary clears up).

The standard DVD contains the following special features:

MAKING LIFE DIFFICULT - the intense and physically exhausting creation of the film

DIRECTING THE DEAD - director Fede Alvarez re-imagines a cult horror classic

BEING MIA - physical and psychological transformation into Evil Mia

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