Horrorfest: 8, uh, 3 Films to Die For! / Reincarnation (2005), The Abandoned (2006), The Gravedancers (2006) Movie Reviews

I would guess that by now most of you caught the frenetic commercials for this unique horror “fest” that appeared to be a scary new ride at Great Adventure. The fest played at only 500 venues across the United States from Friday November 17th to Tuesday the 21st. I originally planned on seeing all eight films advertised, but life being as busy as it is (and my lack of interest in “Snoop Dog’s House of Horror”), I had to make do with three. Luckily, they were the three I most wanted to see.

I must say that as an idea, Courtney Solomon’s concept for a new indie release strategy is a clever one. Take several small budget horror films that would never get a theatrical release on their own and collect them together as a group to increase their market value. It’s like those DVD horror packs you see in the Wal-Mart bins, only slightly more helpful to the filmmakers seeking exposure. Solomon knows all about this, as he started his own distribution company, After Dark Films, to handle the release of his own low profile horror picture, “An American Haunting” earlier this year. Change the perception from “No Theatrical Value” to “Too Extreme to be Release” and maybe enough horror fans will come out of the woodworks to make a profit.

The first film I saw was the “new” film by “Grudge-Master” Takashi Shimizu called “Reincarnation”.


Reincarnation (2006) Movie Review

Known as “Rinne” in Japan, “Reincarnation” is the film Shimizu made after the incredible “Marebito”, and before production commenced on the Japanese “Ju-on 3” and, I would wager, the American “Grudge 3”. Shimizu is an enigma to me, a filmmaker who is quite talented and yet seems to be both driven and repelled by the motion picture factory mentality. While “Marebito” was definitely a change of pace for Shimizu, “Reincarnation” is back to his J-horror roots of long black hair and vengeful ghosts. But it’s once again what Shimizu does with the material that distinguishes it from the rest, not the trite material itself.

I also think Shimizu set out to make a film that was more in line with a Hitchcockian thriller than a full blooded horror film, so those expecting a terrifying movie will be disappointed. The score and credits sequence more than merely reference Bernard Herrmann and Hitchcock; the animation of the credits is clearly inspired by the work of Saul Bass, Hitch’s title designer on films like “Vertigo” and “Psycho”, who created abstract patterns onscreen that somehow distilled the themes of the story.

The story of “Reincarnation” is another contrived piece of “Shimizuscript”, in which two separate yet related storylines come closer and closer together as the film progresses. The fascinating element of this picture revolves around its spin on “The Shining”, with 11 people murdered at a mountainside hotel in the 1970s by a deranged Professor who filmed the whole thing with an 8mm camera. Years later, a self important film director, Matsumura (Kippei Shiina), brings a cast and crew to the hotel to work on his own fictional film about the murders, and casts a timid young actress, Sugiura (Yuka), in the lead role of the professor’s young daughter.

Sugiura has all kinds of visions and nightmares and begins to feel that she is the reincarnation of the professor’s daughter in real life. She finds herself “Phantasm”-like, moving from one state of reality to another, from dreams to visions to scenes she plays in the movie within the movie to flashbacks to the past. In a parallel narrative, a college student is suffering her own sense of deja vu, and with the help of an occult-wise actress, tries to find out her own connection to the hotel’s past.

The brilliance here is not in the day old plot, but in the way Shimizu moves the differing strands of reality closer and closer as the movie comes to its climax. In the last ten minutes, we watch Sugiura play the professor’s daughter in a scene while she “sees” events playing back from the past in visions. Meanwhile, Sugiura’s agent is watching the killer’s actual 8mm footage of the murders, and this is cross cut with the other action to create a sense of reality on top of reality as it all begins to bleed into one another. At the end, we are shown perhaps the creepiest “living doll” ever filmed.

I have to applaud Shimizu’s clever resurrection of the “rubber reality” movie so popular in the 1980’s, following the release of Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street”. Shimizu’s direction is so assured that he is able to fully integrate a “Dawn of the Dead” reference without a blink.

“Reincarnation” was probably the best of the three I saw at “Horror Fest”, and the one most deserving of a theatrical release. I say “probably” because of the quality of the next film I saw.

Takashi Shimizu (director) / Takashi Shimizu, Masaki Adachi (screenplay)
CAST: Yûka …. Sugiura
Kippei Shiina …. Matsumura
Tetta Sugimoto
Shun Oguri
Marika Matsumoto


The Abandoned (2006) Movie Review

Tarkovsky does Mario Bava in the feature film debut of notorious short filmmaker Nacho Cerda. Cerda made his name with two controversial short films, “Aftermath” (the one where the coroner spends the entire 30 minutes performing a very realistic autopsy and acts of necrophilia on the corpse of a young woman), and “Genesis”, which demonstrated a strong sense of visual craftsmanship, but did not necessarily display any skill or even interest in classical narrative. “The Abandoned” is clearly the work of a master visualist trying to walk the line between narrative and visual spectacle. The story is there, but it does not get in the way of the visual experience, which is amazing.

We get a seemingly simple story of an American film producer, Marie (Anastasia Hille), who returns to Russia to find out about her long lost parents. All she learns is that they are dead and that she has inherited a strange house on an island surrounded by water. She is driven out there at night by a mysterious and sinister driver, and left at the house alone.

Roaming about, she comes into almost immediate contact with the creepy, wet ghost of a woman who looks much like herself, and moves oh-so-slowly with dead, white eyes. Marie is saved by Nicolai (Karel Roden), who claims to be her twin brother. Neither of them can get off the island, and we slowly get the sense we are in some kind of “Solaris” type of environment, where sentient beings control all that is seen and heard.

The events unfold in a mind bending manner that seems to fuse more complex ideas about life and death with an adventure from “Star Trek”. In the end, we learn that everything is tied to the twins’ birthday and as it nears, Cerda achieves some of the most exciting scenes in modern fantasy film, as the old house begins to return to its former self, throwing the protagonists about the room as the walls uncrack, tables are recovered and set, paintings and photos go up, and shredded wallpaper comes together.

This is a film that is hard to describe in words, and really needs to be seen.

Nacho Cerdà (director) / Nacho Cerdà , Karim Hussain, Richard Stanley (screenplay)
CAST: Valentin Ganev …. Andrei Misharin
Anastasia Hille …. Marie
Carlos Reig …. Anatoliy
Karel Roden …. Nicolai


The Gravedancers (2006) Movie Review

The title tells all in this jumbled mess of a horror film. After a funeral, several of the deceased’s old friends get the “Big Chill” and decide to celebrate life by dancing on some graves. Unfortunately they dance on the graves of three very pissed off psychos, whose ghosts rise, having exactly one month to kill their desecrators.

Mike Mendez made a fairly popular comic horror film several years ago called “The Convent”, and spent the next several years trying to raise funding for this ghost story. Why he felt so compelled to bring “The Gravedancers” to the screen escapes me, but I can imagine he thought it would be a fun William Castle type horror picture. With either a larger or smaller budget he may have achieved that goal.

As it is, the film is budgeted at the deathly mid-level, where a known French actor like Tch’ky Karyo (the bad guy in most Luc Besson movies, as well as Michael Bay’s “Bad Boys”) can be afforded, and the film has to abide by tight scheduling and union rules. A guerrilla styled DV version could’ve taken the concept and went Sam Raimi mad with it, inventing all kinds of unforgettable sequences that would take days to shoot.

While watching “The Gravedancers”, you just feel the need for more money, through effects that just don’t cut it, actors who really, really need that extra take, and “ghosts” that are little more than silly looking rubber mask affairs. And while Karyo lets us know that he knows he’s in a ridiculous movie by camping things up, he never lets the director or the other cast members in on the joke, and they seem to be incredibly square as a result.

“The Gravedancers”, while never boring, is not much above the level of the standard Sci Fi Channel production, or strange to say, something that should’ve gone straight to DVD.

Mike Mendez (director) / Brad Keene, Chris Skinner (screenplay)
CAST: Clare Kramer …. Allison
Dominic Purcell …. Harris McKay
Josie Maran …. Kira Hastings
Marcus Thomas …. Sid Vance
Reid Dalton …. Charles Dunleven
Tch’ky Karyo …. Vincent