The SmarK DVD Rant – Monster Chiller Horror Theater!

So yeah, Halloween is upon us again, and with it comes a spate of new DVDs cashing in on it. Now, I’m not really a huge horror guy (although I watch the Saw movies because we all need some stupid shit in our lives sometimes), mainly because the genre has become so overrun with remakes and sequels that it’s just too depressing to get into it. Maybe that’s why it was such a treat (see what I did there?) to come across a pair of Halloween-themed movies in my mailbox that actually felt fresh and original.

DragMetoHell

Drag Me To Hell (Blu-Ray)

First up, Sam Raimi returns to making cheesy gross-out horror movies again, having grown weary of making billions of dollars on the back of Spider-Man, apparently. And who can blame him, really? Harkening back to the days of The Evil Dead, Raimi strips the horror genre down to the most basic elements for Drag Me To Hell (which is to say, evil gypsies and lots of people puking on other people). I really, REALLY liked this movie, mainly because it provoked such an emotional reaction in me and these sorts of movies don’t really do that. The secret weapon here is Alison Lohman, who still looks babyfaced at 30 and provides the viewer with a sympathetic character to root for when all the bad stuff starts happening to her. And man, the stuff that happens. Lohman plays Christine Brown, a loan officer at a crappy bank who enjoys an apparently chaste relationship with her perfect boyfriend and only wants a promotion to assistant manager to top off her perfect life. She’s a ridiculous nice person who gets pushed around by the world, and finds herself needing to make "the touch decisions" in order to get the promotion ahead of her scumbag co-worker.

So wouldn’t you know, one day a creepy old gypsy woman wanders into the bank, complaining because the bank has already given her two extensions on her mortgage and now wants to foreclose. Does Christine take pity or make the tough call? Well the movie wouldn’t go anywhere if she didn’t screw over the gypsy, and that’s the one thing you NEVER EVER do in a horror movie. But really, the gypsy (and her extended family) is a huge asshole, as Christine offers her several viable alternatives and really is left with no choice but to do what she does. Christine finds herself cursed as a result (after a typically over-the-top Raimi sequence where the crazed old woman attacks in the parking lot) and discovers she has three days to live before the dreaded dark gypsy spirit Lamia (the blackest of the black magic, according to a spiritual guide who Christine consults for help) comes and takes her soul away to Hell. The torments that Christine goes through are some truly visceral stuff (the stuff with the fly and her ongoing hair-pulling war with a corpse will really push some buttons, I’ll bet) and it’s not even graphically gory like most "torture porn" is these days.

What really drives the movie, though, is the fact that Christine is basically a good person who did nothing wrong, and is suffering from a colossal punishment for no other reason than life really sucks sometimes. In fact, she could save herself by screwing over someone else, and she chooses not to because she’s a good person, and she’s even punished for THAT. I liked that this was a character you CARE about and you become invested in wanting her to beat the shitty things that are happening to her for no reason. Normally in these sorts of movies the main characters are interchangeable mannequins fresh out of modeling school, so it’s a nice change of pace to get an unambiguously good person to root for. This is definitely not a movie to reaffirm your belief in the goodness of the human race or to find a happy ending, but it’s a good time for scare fans or those who have seen Evil Dead 2 100 times and want a new fix.

I should note that I got this on Blu-Ray and it’s a pretty great looking disc, but it’s LOUD. Like if you’re looking for a major difference between DVD and BD, the dynamic range is a good place to start. People talk quietly for much of the movie, and then BLAM, huge music cue or sound effect, and it’s intentionally jarring and pretty awesome. Sadly the disc lacks any real extras aside from "video diary" type stuff and the usual "BD Live" bullshit where you can download ads for other Universal releases. Voting on a trailer is not my idea of a useful extra.

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Trick ‘R Treat

I hadn’t even heard of this one, and checking it out I discovered that Warner had shelved it for a good long time before putting it out on DVD. In fact, it was originally scheduled for release in October of 2007 (!!) and then kicked around for two years before landing on DVD directly here. And all I can say is, are they NUTS? This is one of the most original and fun horror movies to come out of the studio system since the movie it’s paying tribute to, Creepshow. In fact, I think I can safely say that if you’re a fellow lover of that anthology movie and have been waiting for someone to make a better version of it than Creepshow II ended up being, this is your movie.

Basically this is the scary movie version of Pulp Fiction, intertwining four stories of Halloween in a small town where Something Very Bad happened years ago. Much like Creepshow, this is a movie with a very dark sense of humor and no great faith in humanity. The setups are familiar: Slutty girls try to find a date for their virginal friend at a party; a high school principal conceals a creepy secret; young kids find their practical jokes turned on them; and an old man faces his demons from years back. What I loved about this movie is the way that the twists and turns have nothing to do with the usual horror movie tropes, and thus keep the viewer guessing throughout. And the characters in the movie are cast wonderfully, especially Dylan Baker as a frustrated single parent who ends up involved in the payoff of another storyline in the movie…but more than that I won’t reveal. I knew nothing of the story going in and was delighted to find myself swept up in the plot as it went along, surprised and shocked by the storyline rather than by the usual "shocking" special effects. Trick ‘R Treat walks the fine line between having a dark sense of humor and being a parody very well, never quite falling too much onto the side of the silly before wrenching the viewer back with something really nasty again. It’s not particularly gory, but there’s enough stuff in here to make for a good Halloween scare for those so inclined on October 31.

Unfortunately there’s nothing for extras outside of one three-minute animated short by director Michael Dougherty, but I guess that’s not surprising given the low-key nature of the release.

This week’s winner: Get them both! Strong thumbs up on both counts, but Trick ‘R Treat is my pick if you must choose, and I think it’s a movie that’s going to build up word of mouth and become a new Halloween classic.

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