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Movie Review: Festival Of Horrors: Volume One

By Mike Everleth ⋅ January 21, 2009

DVD cover to Festival of Horrors: Volume One featuring a skull

Festival of Horrors: Volume One is a DVD collection of seven short horror films culled from the first three years of Washington D.C.’s Spooky Movie Film Festival. Like the fest itself, it’s a good mix of a diverse range of filmmaking styles.

The overall DVD has an original, unique presentation as it’s “hosted” by TV and internet horror personality Count Gore De Vol, who introduces and concludes each short with a string of corny jokes and gags. Or, if one may not appreciate that kind of thing, there’s the option of just selecting each short by itself. Although I personally didn’t grow up with the TV horror host tradition — De Vol was on the D.C. airwaves from ’73 to ’87 and on the ‘net since — it’s one I have a non-involved nostalgia for. While De Vol has been doing this act for over 30 years, he still gets into it with great gusto and he imbues the DVD with a fun, lively energy. Plus, I’m a sucker for a terrible pun and a good groaner, so I really enjoyed De Vol’s bits.

As for the shorts, I did see about half of them before courtesy of C.W. Prather who runs Spooky Movie. However, I watched those ones in full again along with the shorts I hadn’t seen so I could get a good feel for how the DVD worked as a total package. As I said above, there’s a good mix of films here, but what I think joins them is that — for the most part — they definitely go easy on the gore and do a good job developing mood and suspense over just going for the gross-out.

Even the more violent-themed shorts on the disc achieve more through suggestion than the explicit. Most of the films also combine mostly real-world horrors with just a touch of the supernatural. Instead of films where the ghosts, zombies and werewolves are the main focus, these are serious character dramas — with some exceptions — that have horror elements smartly injected into them, pushing the edges of what a horror film can be.

And now here’s the individual film reviews in the order they appear on the DVD:

The Dollhouse, dir. C. Mark DeGaetani. A young girl and her single mother living in a Gothic old house in the middle of the woods are visited one night by a police detective who warns them that there’s a burglar on the loose in the area. When mom answers the doorbell wearing only a bra and panties, it takes a minute or two of ridiculous double-entendre dialogue to realize that this film is paying homage to cheezy and sleazy old horror movies where single women answer doorbells in their underwear. However, the script is played as straight as a knife blade, so it’s not a spoof of bad old movies at all, but it’s obviously having fun with certain traditions of those types of films. That straight approach works both for and against The Dollhouse. The main drawback is that perhaps a little zippier editing could have given the film more of a fun edge. Instead the film drags on a little bit especially since the plot — again, keeping with tradition — isn’t a suspenseful one. The warning about the burglar, the young girl’s odd all-male doll collection, mom’s bizarre behavior: It’s not too much of a stretch to figure out where the story is going, so the film shouldn’t hold us back from getting there as it does. A lot of older, crappier horror movies do that, but they needed to fill up a feature-length running time. Still, DeGaetani does a good job keeping a consistent spooky mood and tone throughout; and when the payoff finally arrives, he doesn’t skimp.

The Ancient Rite of Corey McGillis, dir. Dalibor Backovic. From Australia comes Backovic’s somber Tales of the Crypt comic book style story, but with a more thoughtful and measured pace. A mentally-impaired teenage boy watches his father die while the obnoxious family lawyer ogles the grieving widow. With one of dear ol’ dad’s last breaths, he urges his son to take care of his mother after he’s gone. There are, of course, two extremely different meanings one can imbue the phrase “take care of” with. Although the film has a very realistic look to it, Backovic doesn’t explicitly spell things out visually or through the sparsely-dialogued script. The film succeeds mostly on its subtle touches and there are several nice moments in the beginning of the film, for example mom and dad lovingly holding hands while she smothers him to death with a pillow. Does mom do the deed for her own good fortune or is she really just putting the love of her life out of his misery? While Backovic keeps us guessing as to each family member’s  intentions and motivations, the film eventually comes a very concrete, physical conclusion when Corey’s “ancient rite” is an over-the-top bloodbath.

Night of the Hell Hamsters, dir. Paul Campion. Despite the jokey premise, Campion treats his groin-munching rodents pretty seriously. Yeah, the film gets the “up the pants leg” gag out of the way quickly, but the possessed little creatures are nothing to laugh out. This is more Evil Dead “funny” than Attack of the Killer Tomatoes bad humor, which one has to really admire Campion from going too goofy. He’s also very smart about not stretching the premise too thin. Two teenagers inadvertantly use a makeshift Ouija board to summon a demon that transforms two tiny hamsters into flesh-eating whirling dervishes. When the assault starts, it’s a quick, bloody and very brutal hit-and-run that ends with a terrific punchline.

Sheep Skin, dir. Kurtis M. Spieler. The premise behind Sheep Skin is a terrific one so the film is mildly successful, but the execution, particularly through the dialogue, doesn’t quite give the proceedings the punch Spieler is going for with his ending. Actually, the film is all about the ending, playing things up a big surprise payoff, which comes off more as an interesting twist than a brutal shock. At an abandoned drive-in, three guys and one girl drag a blood-soaked man out of a car and vow revenge for killing one of their friends. The victim pleads for his life and it seems for a moment that he has a chance to get away for his life. This is a fairly short film, but it could have used a little more raw brutality where the audience could really question the morality of the attackers’ vigilantism. Instead, one guy seems kind of wishy-washy while the others are mostly one-dimensional revenge-seekers. A little more back-and-forth could have really sold this one.

Callous Sentiment, dir. Vincent Grashaw. A skinny, dorky kid walks by an abandoned playground in his neighborhood one day and witnesses acts of horrific violence on a daily basis. Terrified, yet riveted, he can’t look away. However, what he’s watching isn’t really happening. Instead, they’re tableaus being performed by ghosts or fantasies conjured up from the spectres within his own mind. The film has a really intriguing, stylized look. The violent scenes happen in the middle of the afternoon and the film has a gauzy, over-exposed look to it. Plus, the main actor who witnesses these violent visions does a great job in his transformation from being completely horrified to becoming overly excited by the brutality. I’m just not quite sure what the point is here. It’s kind of like a Twilight Zone episode with the “morality play” aspect sucked out of it. It’s a cool little short, but it would have benefitted tremendously if the script had dug a little deeper.

The Marionette, dir. Holly Paige Joyner. The “torture porn” genre gets turned on its severed ear in this twisty abuse saga about a famous artist and his girlfriend being abducted by a lunatic who ties them up like giant marionettes while doing terrible, terrible things to their bodies. The film is more about the fun plot turns than the actual bloodletting. The torture scenes actually are of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre variety, where the suggestion of violence is more disturbing than witnessing it. For the most part, the “torture porn” genre has run its course, but that’s because most of those films aren’t as imaginative as this one.

The Legend of Farmer Jenkins, dirs. Mike Tonder & Mark DeRidder. While I’m usually not too crazy about the type of computer animation used for this film, this is such a fun, well-done short that the animation didn’t matter. While sitting in a treehouse one night, two older kids terrorize a younger kid about Farmer John, who fell into a thresher and now his zombie self roams the countryside looking for little boys to eat. Like a good campfire tale, this has some good gags, some actual scares and a great ending.

Read the review of Volume Two!

Watch the Festival of Horrors movie trailer: