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New Releases for Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Dark Signal

Genre: Horror

Directed by: Edward Evers-Swindell

Run time: 98 minutes

Rating: Unrated

Format: Video-on-Demand

The Lowdown: There’s a thrill about Dark Signal that doesn’t happen all too often with horror films these days.

It’s the thrill of trying to unravel its true nature.

Is it an homage to slasher films of days gone by? Is it a paranormal revenge thriller? A supernatural ghost story?

Yes, yes and yes.

Dark Signal is pretty much unclassifiable, and that’s a really good thing in this case.

Writer-director Edward Evers-Swindell previously worked on Neil Marshall’s The Descent, as well as The Descent: Part 2, which Marshall executive-produced, and Marshall returns the favor, serving as executive producer for Evers-Swindell’s feature debut.

I’m glad he did because Dark Signal is a thing of genre beauty.

Evers-Swindell’s mines familiar genre tropes – a long buried secret, a killer with renewed resolve, a paranormal séance – and finds new ground (and fresh blood) by mashing the different genres together.

On the one hand, you’ve got the story of lovers Kate and Nick. Kate (the fantastic Joanna Ignaczewska) makes the unfortunate decision to serve as Nick’s driver while he breaks into a big spooky house in the middle of a remote country forest. Her son is back at home, where she should be.

Meanwhile, miles away, at a local radio station, chain-smoking rock DJ Laurie Wolf (the equally fantastic Siwan Morris) and engineer Ben (Gareth David-Lloyd – Torchwood fans, rejoice!) are preparing for the final broadcast in the station’s history. Ben has booked a psychic without Laurie’s knowledge, and before long, the psychic believes she has made contact on-air with the spirit of a young woman murdered by a masked psychopath.

Evers-Swindell slowly unspools these two stories, masterfully ratcheting tension, until the twin tales intersect in spectacular, bloody fashion.

It’s a fair criticism to say that Evers-Swindell didn’t need to take the kitchen sink approach for his first film, but what’s impressive is how both stories work so well without one sacrificing to allow the other to shine. Most directors have a difficult time when focused solely on one genre.

Dark Signal is an auspicious debut, and it heralds the arrival of a very promising talent.

This one comes highly recommended.

The Stuff You Care About: Hot chicks – Siwan Morris is smoking hot.

Nudity – No. Gore – Yes.

Drug use – No.

Bad Guys/Killers – Here’s a hint, it ain’t the ghosts.

Buy/Rent – Buy it.

Camera Obscura (Chiller Films, 95 minutes, Unrated, VOD): Kudos to Chiller Films, the theatrical branch of TV’s Chiller network, for making significant strides in producing and releasing quality original horror movies that mainstream Hollywood seems incapable of or unwilling to market and release.

Since 2011, the company has slowly built a reputable brand, but it wasn’t until 2016 with the debut of Slasher, the network’s first scripted serial show, and Siren, a companion piece to the short film Amateur Night, which kicked off 2012’s V/H/S franchise, that Chiller Films’ potential became clear.

Camera Obscura, the studio’s latest release, is further proof of that promise.

Directed and co-written by Aaron Koontz, making his feature-length debut, Camera Obscura is a nasty slice of supernatural terror that consistently surprises with a series of twists through its third act.

Jack Zeller is a war photographer who got too close to his subject matter, resulting in a crippling bout of PTSD. His wife Claire, hoping to provide a positive outlet, purchases a vintage camera at an estate auction. It’s the first time Jack has held a camera for some time, but quicker than you can say ‘…like riding a bike,’ he’s fully immersed in taking new photos.

The only problem is the camera itself, and the fact that while Jack is simply snapping random photos, he begins to notice a disturbing trend. If another person happens to enter his frame when he’s taking a photo, once the picture is developed, it reveals how that person will die. Is the camera predicting the future, or causing the deaths to occur?

This revelation begins a horrific downward spiral for Jack, as he struggles in vain at first to prevent the deaths from occurring, but then falls victim to believing he can manipulate fate in order to save the people he loves the most.

Did I mention Camera Obscura is pitch-black serious? That sense of doom works well in its favor as it tightens its grip on viewers, dragging us deep within the madness that is consuming Jack.

Koontz gets top-notch support from a cast of genre stalwarts, including Chase Williamson (The Guest, Beyond the Gates), Noah Segan (Deadgirl, The Mind’s Eye, Looper, etc.) and Gretchen Lodge (Lovely Molly).

Bloody and borderline insane throughout, Camera Obscura deserves to be high on your must-see list.

Aaron’s Blood (Gravitas Ventures, 80 minutes, Unrated, VOD): You have to give a film like Aaron’s Blood credit.

Not only does it forge its own path past the dozens and dozens of new vampire thrillers routinely released, but it does so by emphasizing love, faith and family over the allure of eternal life and rivers of liquid red.

Writer-director Tommy Stovall has a clear idea of exactly how he wants people to react, and he’s able to coax some above-average performances from his cast to help elevate Aaron’s Blood and further distinguish it from more traditional vampire horror.

That’s not to say his third film is a triumphant success. It has its share of plot and pacing issues, but Stovall is able to navigate around those to reach an affecting conclusion that doesn’t elicit groans of disbelief.

If you love vampire movies, but you’re tired of the same old same, Aaron’s Blood should definitely be on your radar.

Manhattan Undying (Momentum Pictures, 90 minutes, Unrated, VOD): Speaking of people who love vampire movies for the blood and savagery, and there are people who love vampire movies for the fantasy and the escape they afford.

Manhattan Undying very much falls into the latter category. It’s a thriller that romanticizes the vampire mythos, much like 1993’s To Sleep with a Vampire or 1987’s Graveyard Shift or even TV’s wonderfully cheesy Forever Knight.

It’s OK – you know who you are, and I know you, and I know you will totally dig this new take on eternal devotion.

Where the Buffalo Roam – Collector’s Edition (Shout! Factory, 96 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): True fact – I once worked for a broadcast media company that received a fax from Hunter S. Thompson.

It was June 1991 and the one-page diatribe – Thompson hated an investigative piece produced by the company – included a grainy black and white photo of what appeared to be an underage girl. It also included Thompson’s distinct and incomparable voice and eloquent, even majestic, use of coarse profanity to drive home his point.

It was a rarefied moment and the significance wasn’t lost on anyone in the newsroom.

For journalists, Thompson and his mythical legacy of gonzo reporting represents an unobtainable Valhalla. Who else but Thompson could get away with such antics and still be revered, much less employed?

Capturing Thompson’s mythos and spirit in anything other than his own words is a particularly daunting proposition.

To date, four films have tried with varying degrees of success. Not surprisingly, the most accurate is likely the only documentary of the bunch, 2008’s Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, but the most enjoyable is surely Terry Gilliam’s 1998 psychedelic travelogue, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which starred Johnny Depp in full method as Thompson. That film was awarded with a Criterion Collection collector’s edition, further proof of its prowess in wrangling Thompson’s masterwork of a novel into a digestible screen adventure.

Now, Shout! Factory has given the deluxe high-definition treatment to the first film that tried to enshrine Thompson’s legacy, 1980’s Where the Buffalo Roam, which starred a soon-to-be-A-list Bill Murray as the gonzo journalist.

Arriving just a year after Murray’s official Hollywood coming out, the hilarious comedy classic Meatballs, the film tried gamely to present a patchwork of Thompson’s most memorable adventures, which had been detailed in books like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72.

As directed by Art Linson and written by John Kaye, with executive consulting credit to Thompson himself, Where the Buffalo Roam is unwieldy and brazenly disinterested in following conventional narrative structure.

As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Kaye wouldn’t write another film for 20 years and Linson only directed one other film, 1984’s The Wild Life with Chris Penn and Ilan Mitchell-Smith (Weird Science).

Whether that’s due to the critical and commercial response to Buffalo isn’t known, but this much is true: Where the Buffalo Roam is an exercise in excess befitting its subject.

The film interestingly names Peter Boyle first in the credits, and Murray second, and that’s indicative of how the movie unfolds. Boyle plays a fictional version of Thompson’s attorney and conspiratorial soulmate named Laslow, and much of the movie focuses heavily on Laslow with Murray’s Thompson frolicking in the background like a drug-addled, booze-soaked pixie.

Buffalo lurches along with the thinnest of connective tissue to help segue from one extended set piece to the next. Murray plays Thompson as a modified version of Tripper, his carefree camp counselor from Meatballs, but with little of the comedic timing and facial contortions that cemented Murray’s skill as an actor.

Watching Buffalo is like being subjected to a parade of rejected Saturday Night Live skits that were deemed too self-aware to be universally funny. One moment Murray is mumbling and firing off rounds from a pistol at an antiquated fax machine in his office, trying his best to avoid a deadline; the next, he is sitting in a courtroom with a Bloody Mary and a bag of narcotics, shouting out commentary during a criminal trial with no repercussions for his behavior.

It’s not entertaining so much as fascinating in its seeming determination to be as subversive, off-putting and divisive as possible.

And maybe that’s why we’re still talking about what’s essentially a subpar and painfully unfunny film so many years later. More than Gilliam’s literal interpretation of Thompson’s prose, which proved exhilarating to watch, Where the Buffalo Roam is a factual representation of the turbulent storm of conflicting ideologies and personal character flaws that made Thompson such a curious celebrity.

If so, then this Blu-Ray is yet another last laugh from the man himself, deep from the snowy solitude of Owl Farm in Woody Creek, CO where his ashes were blasted from a cannon following his suicide in 2005.

Thompson’s legend lives on. All hail the gonzo king.

Kill ‘Em All (Sony, 95 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): Jean-Claude Van Damme returns in a curious action flick that seems to be waging an internal war with itself.

On the one hand, it's a study in hand-to-hand combat in a confined space - a hospital - which should allow Van Damme to flex his capable skills as a martial artist.

But it's also a film with a political statement - in this case, war crimes - that keeps hopping forward in time to a government interrogation of the sole survivor, a nurse, who helped keep Van Damme alive during his one-man-against-the-world battle against a team of hired professional assassins.

The back and forth between the two stories seriously undermines the action scenes and consistently saps whatever momentum Kill 'Em All is able to generate.

Also Available:

The Ticket

Juice: 25th Anniversary Edition

The Last Word

Kingdom: Seasons One and Two

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