The Macabre Brothers share an affinity for bargain-bin horror films. It’s actually more like an addiction – hardly a month goes by without one of us wasting $5 on some dubious DVD title. Such impulse buys may not deserve a full review, but like porn, they’re worth a quick and shameful glance. In Basement Ramblings, we answer your most meaningful question: Is this month’s piece of crap worth the price of a Big Mac?
The premise: A blonde starlet of ‘50s cinema, the oddly named Scarlett May, is hacked to pieces in a gruesome crime. The catch: Her murder was caught on film. Fast-forward to the fringes of modern-day Hollywood, where a shameless purveyor of grindhouse films, producer Connor Pritchett (Lance Henriksen), is struggling through the twilight of a long career. In a publicity stunt, horror-film addict Adam Waltz (Edward Furlong) wins a cameo in Pritchett’s latest low-rent pirate film, and soon after, the various body parts of lead actresses appear in an echo of the murder from decades earlier. Despite the suspicious dismemberments, Waltz catches the eye of rising star Cassie Blue (Tiffany Shepis), who’s also the unwilling love object of director Derek Deeds (Jeffrey Vincent Parise). Through it all, two cops, a ghost and mangy paparazzi follow the doomed cast.
But the typo-riddled back cover probably sums up Dark Reel the best: “Adam Waltz is in a blood drenched [sic] horror film produced by Connor Pritchett (Lance Henriksen). Detective Shields tries to unravel the mystery of real murders before the ghost of Scarlett May can strike again.” It’s maddeningly vague – along with nonsensical, inaccurate, lazy and haphazard – but it mentions horror films AND Lance Henriksen. Could be worse.
Where I found it: On the end of a King Soopers aisle in Avon, Colo., wedged between the latest Resident Evil film and tubs of whey protein.
Why it caught my eye: As an Alien devotee, I’m a sucker for Lance Henriksen. Like most character actors, he’s appeared in plenty of flat-out shitty films, but he lends a sort of campy charm to every project. Horror is arguably his genre of choice, and the chance to see him in a horror film about horror films held a tiny glimmer of promise. The cover also follows in the long tradition of direct-to-DVD marketing: A maybe creepy, mostly cheesy death-mask Photoshopped to look way better than the film’s makeup effects. And I’m helplessly attracted to lurid covers, so there’s that.
What works: Dark Reel’s opening scene is a doozy. The tone, mood, lighting and dialogue come together in a loving homage of ‘50s film noir, and I was pleasantly surprised at how it upended my expectations. A palette of searing whites and shadowy blacks makes Scarlett May’s murder by a mysterious, smooth-talking gentleman incredibly visceral – even the obligatory gore shots are filmed in lush detail. If you can look past an odd obsession with lady killing that’s so common in horror and noir, this five-minute stretch would make a gorgeous and bewildering short film. It sets up a far more intriguing world than the ensuing slog through tired slasher tropes and half-assed comedy, where dead women are handled far less delicately.
Once the plot-wheels start turning, the film’s only shot at redemption comes from casting and cameos. Who knows how three relatively big names got roped into the production, but familiar faces can have a comforting effect in otherwise shitty situations, like a Hot Toddy when you come down with the flu. Henriksen gives a typically committed (if not quite memorable) performance as a Roger Corman-esque producer at the end of his rope. It’s telling that the most shocking moment in a supposed horror film comes when he takes a revolver from hiding, shoves it in his mouth and hyperventilates when the gun fails to go off. Tony Todd – the giant, intimidating actor known in horror circles for 1992’s Candyman – is Henriksen’s exact opposite as Detective Shields. Todd hams it up with reckless abandon, pulling straight from the “I’m too old for this shit” well of irreverent cinema cops. A highlight comes halfway through, when a paparazzo sneaks into one of the cast’s nightly pool parties. The scene could be easily cut, but the character is played by Tracey Walter – otherwise known as Bob, Joker’s “right hand man” in Tim Burton’s Batman. Whether intentional or not, just the sight of him with an old-school camera reminded me of Vicki Vale and a much better film.
I wouldn’t be a proper critic if I didn’t mention Dark Reel’s “pedigree,” if it can be called that. It made the rounds at 13 film festivals between 2006 and 2008, including Los Angeles’ famed Shriekfest, where Shepis won a Best Actress nod. Those festivals led to national distribution and, in the end, my five bucks. God bless America.
What sucks: If Dark Reel’s opening scene showcased cinematic essentials – compelling characters, meaningful editing, a sustained tone – the remaining 85 minutes are a slog through the inessentials. The editing is choppy and abrasive, the tone veers from camp to horror to drama, and several attempts at satire go nowhere. It’s like the two sections were made on different planets, one inhabited by budding filmmakers, the other by bonobos with a camera. Even seemingly important plot points – say, the ghost of Scarlett May, imagined in the most laughably literal way possible – could be nixed with little effect on the story.
When I realized the film was devolving into a boring mish-mash of slashers and ghost stories, I held out hope for halfway decent kills. But no, these also fall prey to a bizarrely mismatched tone. Several deaths are intended to be highly dramatic, while others involve severed heads as baseballs. The effects are decent enough, but piss-poor editing and sound design removes all tension.
Of all the recognizable actors, Furlong (aka the boy who taught Ahnold to feel in Terminator 2: Judgment Day) is the most bewildering. His film-obsessed fanboy is meant to be charmingly creepy, but he’s such a weak actor, I was distracted by how easily Shepis’ gorgeous and playful rising star falls for his bug-eyed weirdo. It’s a relationship of plot convenience – he’s an obvious suspect in the overarching slasher plot, and as horror buffs know, all well-meaning heroines do something dumb like date the killer. But like most of Dark Reel’s blind stabs at satire and meta-commentary, it fails miserably, thanks to a mystery I never found interesting.
And then there’s the issue of uncomfortable misogyny. Males and females are killed with equal fervor, but the pretty young actresses are dissected with near-pornographic zeal, while the men die for comic relief. (Remember Bob from Batman, now a scruffy old man with graying hair? He’s beat to death with his own severed arm. I laughed, but still, it has a different vibe than dicing up a bikini-clad blonde for several minutes.) Plenty of slashers fall prey to this kind of uneven spectacle, but for a film that supposedly prides itself on being smarter than the rest – or at least more self-aware – no attempt is made to challenge the status quo.
Verdict: Dark Reel isn’t half as trashy, clever or subversive as that opening scene promised, and misguided attempts at calling attention to its crappiness only make matters worse. It takes an interesting premise and several strong actors, then sabotages the whole production with horrible pacing and a lackluster plot. The film also creates a bizarro world where B-movies are hot shit, and the people involved in them are even hotter shit – like the filmmakers are congratulating themselves for briefly entering the lowest levels of Hollywood and snobbishly tearing it to shreds. This wouldn’t be a problem if Dark Reel shared even an ounce of DNA with the endearingly awful Roger Corman films it attempts to mimic, but sadly, it doesn’t. Not a single chromosome.