Directed by: Andrew P. Jones
Run time: 75 minutes
The Lowdown: A lot of people look at direct-to-DVD movies, especially within the horror genre, as being the bottom of the barrel.
Often, they star former stars who have long since passed the point where they can topline a new picture and draw people in on name-recognition alone.
The reality is that while some of these lower-budget releases are truly dismal, others actually shine far brighter than expected.
Let’s take this study in contrasts – Minutes to Midnight and Darkness Reigns – two new direct-to-DVD titles, both starring well-known and popular genre icons.
Minutes to Midnight is a variation on the local urban legend/crazy family up in the woods subgenre. It’s directed by Christopher Ray, the son of cult director Fred Olen Ray (Cyclone, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers), which is likely enough motivation for many genre fans to check it out. Plus, it stars a trio of well-known actors – Bill Moseley, Richard Grieco and William Baldwin.
Here’s the problem, though. Minutes to Midnight is wholly derivative, so poorly acted and poorly shot that for most of its run time, it feels like you’re watching a parody instead of an actual, serious horror movie.
Moseley basically spends his few brief moments on camera wearing an Otis wig from The Devil’s Rejects and doing crazy shit like he did as Chop-Top in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 way back in 1986.
What’s the point exactly? Why would an actor so revered and so beloved, who is still relevant and still booking big jobs, feel the need to riff on his most classic roles for a barrel-scraping, bottom-feeder of a movie that no one is going to enjoy?
Grieco served as an executive producer on Minutes to Midnight, which I assume means that he felt pretty strongly about its potential. Why then does he look completely spaced-out throughout the movie. He plays a sheriff in a small town with basically one deputy and every time he radios in for backup, no one answers his call. Most sheriffs would flip out at the lack of response. Grieco just shrugs and says things like, ‘They’ll get here eventually.’
Baldwin plays a business owner whose entire employee roster reads like the lamest grouping of stereotypes ever assembled. The employees basically decide to camp out for New Year’s Eve at a remote cabin that Baldwin owns. Even after Grieco stops by to issue an ominous warning and demand that they leave the woods immediately, they just shrug and say, ‘Party on!’
Most of the kills either take place off-screen or are filmed in such a fashion that you can’t see a fucking thing that’s happening. Case in point, Moseley’s big moment to shine, where he goes on a killing rampage, is filmed by Ray through a series of pulsing strobe bursts. Every time you think you’re about to get a clear view, the screen explodes in bright light or goes painfully dark. It’s maddening.
On the flip side, there’s Darkness Reigns, which stars another genre icon, Casper Van Dien (Starship Troopers, Mask of the Ninja).
Van Dien approaches the film like he’s starring in an A-list production. He plays with his image, poking fun at the surly reputation some actors get for being super serious on set. And he’s not the only one. The entire cast is on point. The premise is actually interesting. And when shit hits the fan, it really hits the fan.
Darkness Reigns plays with genres as it focuses on a young camera operator documenting the behind-the-scenes goings-on for the planned DVD release of a supernatural horror show that’s being filmed in a supposedly haunted hotel.
Writer-director Andrew P. Jones allows tension to build naturally, so much so that when everything goes to hell, you’re truly not expecting it. There’s a huge kill 39 minutes into Darkness Reigns that Jones does a masterful job setting up. And that’s just the beginning. There’s a mass poisoning. A central character explodes in flames. A member of the crew becomes possessed. Another character is eviscerated.
As a paranormal advisor to the production tries gamely to keep the remaining survivors alive, the hotel becomes a hell house of horrors until finally the young camera operator is revealed to know more about what’s happening than he’s let on.
That reveal, which represents a huge and well-done twist, gives viewers all the context they need to fully appreciate exactly what Darkness Reigns has accomplished.
So, the verdict?
Skip Minutes to Midnight, no matter how strong its pull. You will only be disappointed.
But Darkness Reigns should be on your radar. It’s fun, gory as hell and solid throughout. An even better indication: I watched a digital screener, but I will absolutely purchasing my own copy to include in my horror library.
The Stuff You Care About:
Hot chicks – Yes.
Nudity – No.
Gore – Yes.
Drug use – No.
Bad Guys/Killers – One seriously pissed off demon.
Buy/Rent – Buy it.
The Cured (Shout! Factory, 95 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): The Cured, the first feature film from writer-director David Freyne, is a fantastic example of the great things that can happen when you completely flip the script on a well-worn genre.
The Cured is a zombie thriller, but it’s unlike any zombie film you’ve ever seen. Why? Because it examines what might happen after a zombie apocalypse, once a cure is developed and administered, and all the people who previously were shuffling the streets in search of brains have their consciousness restored and they are forced to deal with the emotional fallout from the horror they caused.
Senan (Sam Keeley) spent a long time terrorizing the city where he lived once he was infected. Now cured, he is about to be released into the custody of his sister-in-law Abbie (Ellen Page), whose husband – Senan’s brother – didn’t survive the outbreak.
Abbie wants to know what happened, what Senan remembers, but he is withdrawn and reluctant to talk. Then, Conor (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) shows up, at first cozying up to Abbie to thank her for taking Senan back into her home. Conor is recently cured too, and slowly viewers learn the depth of his influence over Senan as it's revealed that they hunted in a pack as zombies after the outbreak began.
Freyne wisely explores all the social and societal issues that might come with such a mass quelling.
The citizens who never turned, who hid and prayed and survived, who watched loved ones fall and get eaten by the ravenous horde, aren’t exactly standing with open arms to welcome the cured back.
The government has set up internment camps in order to monitor the cured to make sure that there is no recurrence of the disease. They treat the cured with open hostility, like border-trespassing immigrants caught and detained indefinitely, which is a nice shout-out to current affairs in the U.S.
Local news programs stoke fear by airing nonstop segments about the situation. Is the cure permanent, or a temporary fix for a disease that cannot be exorcised?
Most of all, Freyne explores something that I can’t recall any other zombie film discussing seriously – exactly what, if anything, the infected understood about their condition once they turned and whether they were aware of the evils they committed while they were zombies, and if some of them maybe liked the freedom that being a zombie provided.
The Cured is a fresh and exciting take on a genre that surprisingly refuses to die. It deserves to be seen and appreciated because it hopefully represents the next phase of what zombie movies can become.
Don’t Grow Up (Magnolia Pictures, 81 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): Don’t Grow Up, a new viral contagion thriller from overseas, is very similar to the recently-released Mom and Dad, but grittier and darker in tone.
Director Thierry Poiraud keeps the action brisk and the tension on high throughout as a group of delinquent students wake up one morning in a facility to discover that no one else is around. As they venture outside of their confines, teasing small hints about a larger menace, they soon discover that only adults appear to have become infected with some sort of rage madness that makes them immediately target young people and children.
There’s a distinct 28 Days Later vibe throughout Don’t Grow Up that definitely works in the film’s favor. This might not be the most original horror movie you’ve ever seen, but it is engaging enough to keep you up past your bedtime without your chin nodding down and your eyes fluttering shut to sleep.
The Last House on the Left: Limited Edition
The Complete Sartana
Now on Video-on-Demand:
Inferno: Skyscraper Escape (High Octane Pictures, 90 minutes, Unrated, Video-on-Demand): So, you want to watch a disaster movie, particularly one featuring a miles-high skyscraper that suddenly catches ablaze?
Well, you’ve got two choices, my friend.
One, you can drive over to the local multiplex and spend about $25 for a ticket, popcorn and a bottle of water to see the new Dwayne Johnson-starring Skyscraper (trust us, it’s not a good investment). Or, you can keep to your couch, skip the channel on your smart TV over to your favorite streaming video-on-demand platform and spend less than $5 to watch Inferno: Skyscraper Escape, an equally ridiculous but much more watchable variation.
Originally titled Crystal Inferno, this is the kind of lower-budget, B-grade genre exercise that attempts to capitalize on an upcoming A-list, big-budget release. Usually, these types of flicks ain’t very good. Inferno: Skyscraper Escape is a refreshingly surprising exception.
Now, look. This is a ridiculous movie. Let’s be upfront and honest.
Inferno: Skyscraper Escape is so low-budget that director Eric Summer uses the same establishing shot of Antwerp over and over, with the same CGI-imposed skyscraper in the foreground, to the point that you can almost imagine Roger Corman calling him to say, ‘Good job, friend.’
Inferno: Skyscraper Escape stars Claire Forlani (remember her? Mystery Men was possibly her best, but Meet Joe Black was definitely her failed bid for A-list status) and Jamie Bamber (Battlestar Galactica) as parents. Claire plays Brianna Bronson, an expert rock climber and structural engineer charged with inspecting the latest super-tall structure. Jamie is her husband Tom, who fears that his wife is cheating on him. They have two kids.
For reasons that are way too convoluted to explain succinctly, the company behind the development of the massive new skyscraper includes two cold-blooded dudes who cut corners, killed previous inspectors and basically know they built a looming death-trap. So, they decide to blackmail Brianna by sending Tom photos that appear to show her making out with a dude on the street. Of course, he falls for it.
Jump forward in time about a year, and Brianna and Tom show up – at the same skyscraper (!) – to finalize their divorce. Guess what? Bad stuff is about to happen. Oh, and just for added giggles, their two kids finally figure out on the same day that the photos of mom being a hussy were doctored and faked. Cue the Uber, because the kids are racing downtown to save their parents’ marriage.
What follows is basically The Towering Inferno mashed together with an extra-special episode of Eight is Enough where Dick Van Patten and Lani O’Grady fight and fight before realizing, doh!, Dick is an idiot and Lani was right all along.
As sirens wail, and people start freaking out, Brianna and Tom learn that their kids are stuck in an elevator just below the origin point of an explosion that threatens to destroy the entire structure. What’s a skilled rock climber to do but leap into action to shimmy down a smoking elevator shaft to save her kids. Forlani is basically Linda Hamilton in T2: Judgment Day.
Bamber, however, is afraid of heights, which is just one of the reasons why his character is basically the WORST father ever. He's completely useless. He gets trapped in smoke in a stairwell and almost dies. He maintains cell phone contact with his kids, but keeps saying incredibly awful things to his children like, “I know the smoke is getting thicker, but daddy has to go now so you can save your battery.”
For all its stupidity, Inferno: Skyscraper Escape is very watchable. There should be a drinking game that accompanies the film when you rent or buy it.
Example: Take a tequila shot every time the very, very, very serious fire chief stares into the distance and barks orders like, “What is the status?! Go!”
Example: Chug a beer every time the two doofuses that knowingly allowed the building to cut costs on its safety features try to destroy documents that would expose their ineptitude.
At one point, I actually wrote in my notes, I really hope the Dwayne Johnson movie is better.
After having seen both blazing skyscraper movies within the same week, I can confidently report that a $125-million budget is not enough on its own to make a good movie.
Ouija Séance: The Final Game (High Octane Pictures, 80 minutes, Unrated, Video-on-Demand): One time, when I was in college, some friends dug up an old Ouija board to impress some sorority girls.
A group of us gathered in an upstairs room, turned down the lights and started to play. Of course, someone had to ask the inevitable question, ‘Is anyone here going to die tonight?’ And, of course, just after, the planchette moved over the word ‘Yes.’
A few minutes later, the girls got bored and decided to go find cooler guys to hang out with. The first girl to leave, as soon as she began walking downstairs, fell head over heels all the way to the bottom and split her lip leaving her with a tooth jutting out from the pulpy pink flesh.
We didn’t really talk much about the game after that, but I can tell you, as someone who had their fingers on the planchette, I didn’t feel anyone push it over toward the word ‘Yes.’
And I’ve never touched a Ouija board since.
If only Ouija Séance: The Final Game had anything remotely as creepy as that happen, it might have been a worthwhile recommendation instead of an interminable time waste.
See, for the first 23 minutes, nothing happens. Not one damn thing. I mean, some stuff happens, but nothing scary. A college girl finds out she inherited a villa. She recruits some friends to go with her to check it out. They arrive and immediately encounter a creepy caretaker. Then they discover a secret room. Guess what, the girl’s grandmother, who left her the villa, was a Satanist! Oh, and course the group brought weed. And a storm suddenly manifests, forcing everyone to stay inside.
By the 38-minute mark, still nothing has happened except for a flicker of a shadowy figure in a mirror behind one of the girls.
Finally, after 42 minutes, the creepy caretaker explains the history of the house. The college kids find some eerie drawings. There’s a second sighting of the shadowy figure.
Seriously, if you’re making a horror movie and nothing horrific happens for almost the entire first hour of your movie, you should not be making a horror movie.
I can report that the final 20 minutes do include some semblance of closure and an explanation of all the silly, not-scary, very-un-spooky stuff, but it’s really too much too late.
Just take our advice and avoid Ouija Séance: The Final Game. We watched it so you don’t have to.