Last Halloween, I took you on a tour of the worst horror films that my wife had forced me to watch over the years. This year, I'm staying positive. Even before the HD boom allowed pretty much everyone to become a filmmaker in their back yard, low-budget horror was always considered the easiest way to attempt to break into the film business. As a result, there has always been a glut of horror titles filling up the shelves at your local video store. 99.9% of these are utter garbage, often shot on the lowest-quality video with the complete absence of talent and production values. But every so often, something truly worthwhile sneaks into the wasteland. And with the major studios currently spending most of their big-screen horror dollars on watered-down remakes and amped-up reboots, one must truly venture into the forbidden zone to find their original horror fix. Here are the best of the worst, straight-to-DVD horror films that genuinely deserved to go to theaters and are actually superior to most of what Hollywood calls mainstream horror in this day and age.
Two notes... First of all, some of these films may have been intended for theaters, originated overseas, or had a token theatrical exhibition in festivals or dollar-theaters due to contractual obligation. Second of all, if you see certain studios making up the majority of these picks, well let's just say that Disney doesn't exactly release a lot of these and Warner Bros' Raw Feed has yet to produce a true winner. So, without further ado (in alphabetical order)...
2001 Maniacs (2005) Originally intended for theaters, this robust horror comedy (actually a remake of a forgotten 1964 film) easily puts most theatrical 'dumb kids get lost and butchered' movies to shame. Shot on film and containing genuine production values, this whacked-out gorefest concerns a group of college kids who stumble upon Pleasant Valley, a southern town that seems to have never left the post Civil-War reconstruction era. Of course, as soon as Robert England shows up as the mayor, you know that this isn't just a recreation but something more sinister. Unlike so many in this genre, you actually get what you paid for. England is having a blast, the actors are actually movie-star attractive, there is gratuitous nudity galore, and the deaths are genuinely creative, completely grotesque and over-the-top gruesome. This one is the very definition of a guilty pleasure.
From Within (2008)
By far the highlight of the third After Dark Horror Fest, this one is directed by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. So it's no surprise that this elegant tone poem looks absolutely gorgeous. It's actually shot in 2.35:1, which is a rarity for any horror film. From Within is basically Saved as a horror picture. On the surface, it's a moody spook story about a rash of suicides that grip an enclosed Bible-belt community. Steven Culp, Rumer Willis, Margo Harshman, and Adam Goldberg are the recognizable faces, and they provide support to the three relatively unknown leads (Elizabeth Rice, Thomas Dekker, and Kelly Batz). The pay-off isn't as promising as the set-up, but there is a genuine sadness and a willingness to take its subject matter farther than a more mainstream title would dare. This one is about character and mood, and the scares come because we genuinely care about those in peril.
Frontiere(s)(2007) This French import, this was intended to play as part of Lionsgate's second After Dark Horror Fest, but it was pulled when it did not receive an R-rating. Imagine a variation on Hostel, but in French, genuinely disturbing, and absolutely pitiless in its depiction of human cruelty. This contains some of the most realistic and stomach-churning violence I've ever seen. But even when the gore quiets down during the second act, the film turns into a whacked-out variation on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This may not be high art, but this is a painful, terrifying cinematic experience that absolutely delivers the gruesome goods.
À l'intérieur (American title- Inside) (2007)
Another French import, this became something of folklore when its unrated form was trimmed by over eight-minutes for its R-rated Blockbuster format. Over the last two years, the film has become a popular 'can you take it?' challenge from one horror fan to another. The premise is simple enough; a young pregnant woman is attacked by a crazed woman who wants a child of her own. But the tension and brutality never lets up for the tightly paced 83-minute running time. This is a savage and painful viewing experience and is not to be recommended lightly. But if you can handle it, or you want to test yourself, this is a truly disturbing motion picture.
Mega Snake (2007)
This is a slight cheat, as this actually premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel about seven months prior to its DVD debut. But my list, my rules. Unlike pretty much every other straight-to-DVD monster movie (I'm looking at you Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus), Mega Snake actually gives the viewer what they paid to see. There's a giant snake, you see the snake quite a bit, that giant snake kills lots of people onscreen, and said homicides are rendered in spectacularly gory fashion. For the token amount of production values, adequate acting, and actually delivering what it promises on the box, Mega Snake is mega-awesome.
Midnight Meat Train (2008) We all know the story about how this Clive Barker adaptation was sacrificed at the altar of Lionsgate's artistic aspirations and dumped in a handful of second-run theaters. But is said movie actually any good? Well, it's another entry where production values exceed storytelling prowess. The film cost $15 million and looks like $50 million, and the cast (Bradley Cooper, Vinnie Jones, Leslie Bibb, Brooke Shields, and Roger Bart) is top-notch for the genre. The main problem is that the film shows its hand far too early, so you spend much of the second half simply waiting for the inevitable. Still, the film is shot in glorious widescreen and contains more than enough moments of shocking violence and gore. It's an ambitious horror picture in a genre that often lacks ambition.
Midnight Movie (2008)
Midnight Movie is one of the best low-budget direct-to-DVD slasher picture yet made. It's shot on film and looks it (the opening scenes are striking to those used to the grainy, grimy video images found in this genre), and the acting is at least adequate. But the big difference is that this variation on the old 'let's watch this legendary horror film that is shrouded in mystery' is actually pretty scary. The murders are savage and violent, and the masked killer is actually frightening, both in appearance and behavior (he moves quickly and doesn't bother to toy with his victims). The narrative avoids the 'idiot plot' whenever possible and the pay-off is surprising, if somewhat illogical. This is simply a rock-solid, old-fashioned scary movie that happens to have debuted on DVD (and eventually Blu Ray).
Murder Party (2007) This amazingly well-written comedy is both satirical and affectionate towards the low-budget horror genre. The plot basically concerns a mild-mannered fellow who decides to attend a gathering that's advertised on a random flyer as a 'murder party'. What kind of idiot attends a murder party? That's just one of the many questions that get asked in this deliciously clever and verbally witty little yarn. No fair spoiling what happens at the party, but you'll be amazed at just how unimpressive it really is. This is a film that revels in the utter lameness of its characters, even as said losers inexplicably grow on you as the film progresses. The film eventually gives in to its horror roots, but even that is skewered in a bitterly condescending look at the kind of people who see art and 'truth' in everything and nothing. Simon Says (2006) First of all, don't let the cover fool you. Blake Lively is in this film for about 30 seconds. The real lead is Margo Harshman, who is really making a go of it as a scream queen in the years after Even Stevens (she's also in the slightly better than expected Sorority Row). This is basically another 'dumb kids go into the woods and get slaughtered' movie. The production values are mediocre at best, and it's not a very good picture. So why is it on the list? Two reasons: first of all, Crispin Glover is completely over the top in a performance that's almost like a parody of straight-to-video horror villains. Second of all, this film contains, hands down, some of the most creative and complex onscreen kills that I've ever seen in a horror film.
And now, the very best direct-to-DVD horror film of them all...
The Children (2008) First of all, this is the best 'evil child' movie ever made. Released just weeks ago as part of a four-film Ghosthouse Underground series, this British chiller rules the roast with thoughtful, well-written characters, a slow sense of building menace, and a terrifyingly plausible premise that compliments a polished and stylishly directed motion picture. The story is simple: while on vacation, two couples realize that their kids just aren't acting like themselves. No one is possessed by or spawned from the devil. No one kills because they were born evil. No one is tormented by the ghost of their unborn evil twin. The reason for the behavior change is never explicitly revealed, but the film seems to imply that it was something as ordinary as food poisoning. The horrifying violence that is eventually unleashed is all the scarier because it could theoretically happen. This film takes its time setting up character and story before the mayhem, which is course renders what comes next all the more effective. While the film works splendidly as a suspense thriller and an old-school horror film, it tops this list for more than just that. The Children is not the most violent film on this list, nor is it the goriest or the showiest. It plays like a drama for much of its running time, and it haunts because it boils itself down to an unanswerable question: would you kill your own sick child to prevent them from killing you?
And that's a wrap. I'm sure there are some that I haven't seen that might have been worth including, so feel free to toss off a recommendation. Everyone have a happy Halloween, and if you're wondering why Trick 'R Treat isn't on the list, it's because in the immortal words of Jay Sherman, it stinks.