Hostile Hauntings box-set

Grade: C

Released: Pendulum Pictures

I’ve never been a particular fan of ghost stories or haunted-house movies; that became clear when I was trying to find “see also…” entries for the films in this set. Excluding Oriental entries (to all intents and purposes, a entirely different animal) I’d estimate that watching the set probably doubled the number in this sub-genre that I’ve seen. Poltergeists and other spooks just doesn’t appeal to me in the same way that more physical monsters, such as vampires, werewolves or masked psychopaths do. That’s probably the biggest problem this set has, which in cinematic review terms is the equivalent of saying “It’s not you, it’s me: can we still be friends?”

The usual rule still applies, however, about this being better than the sum of its parts. Despite little I’d bother watching again, I can’t say I felt ripped off, or didn’t get my money’s worth: the value in these sets is undeniable, even if sometimes I feel the $9.99 price could finance some of the contents in their entirety. This time round, there was nothing I found available elsewhere, though for reasons we’ll get to, one of the films skates on thin ice. And having slagged off the intro screen last time, some praise here, for the neat way Pendulum have done the scene selections. When you click on a scene from the menu, the screen morphs into the first frame, which then stays there until the film starts from that exact point. It’s a simple and effective trick worth copying by other companies.

The Shunned House (2003)

Rating: C+

Dir: Ivan Zuccon
Star: Giuseppe Lorusso, Federica Quaglieri, Emanuele Cerman, Cristiana Vaccaro
a.k.a. La casa sfuggita

Part of me wants to give this a somewhat higher mark, since Zuccon does an excellent job at creating tension on a small budget. Simple things like music, small amounts of blood, and a strobe light come together effectively with the camerawork, to build a sense of dread. And that’s entirely appropriate given the source material – three stories by master of lurking terror, H.P. Lovecraft. The problem is that Zuccon has no idea what do with the horrific atmosphere built up, or real concept of wrapping it into a story. Oh, sure, there’s mumblings about opening gateways to other dimensions through the spilling of blood, and how the Italian villa at the center of this has been rebuilt multiple times, always from the same plans. But the entire meat of the plot is disposed of in about three minutes, and we’re then back to more scenes of undeniable artistry that go nowhere much.

The villa is visited in the present by writer Alex (Lorusso) and his photographer girlfriend Rita (Quaglieri), who are exploring the place’s history, and the large number of suspicious deaths within its walls. Gradually, the time-line appears to blur; a writer (Michael Segal) and mathematician (Cerman) from the past, as well as a mute violinist (Vaccaro), begin to interact with the modern guests. The longer this goes on, the weirder, bloodier and, unfortunately, less comprehensible it becomes. Lovecraft’s work has proven tricky to adapt, even one at a time; trying to merge three into a single entity probably counts as foolhardy rather than brave. Still, Zuccon’s visual sense can’t be denied, and those who like the Italian approach to horror, where logic is generally less important than style, might be more impressed than I.

The Woodland Haunting 2 (2006)

Rating: C

Dir: Dennis Baker
Star: Dennis Baker, Anthony Phol, Darlene Von Drake, Nick Danger

This defies criticism, since the film basically stands there and says, “Yeah, I know. I’m very cheap and crappy – wanna make something of it?” It’s the story of Denton Rose (Baker), a ghost-hunter who does an Elvis impersonation, and is called to help Shelia (sic) Baker (Von Drake), after her siblings are gobbled-up by another dimension in her house. There is also a sasquatch and a sasquatch-hunter running around, while a badly-matted flying saucer flies through outer space occasionally. This is, utter crap in almost every department. The acting largely blows, the editing appears to have been carried out with a butter-knife, and all the other technical aspects are mediocre at best, except for the use of blue-screen, which is abysmal. But, you know what? It kept my interest better, and provided more entertainment, than many a film with actual production values and real actors.

This is – and I want to stress the point – not because it is “good” in any meaningful sense. Baker, in his producer’s role, has squeezed absolutely every penny of production value out of the film’s budget, and that’s worthy of praise. It takes gall to restage the best scene from The Ring, on a budget better suited to the Value Menu at McDonald’s; one can only wonder what he might do if his next film’s main source of funding was not the back of his sofa. Any work that features shots from inside both a Coke can and a jar of peanut butter – neither, for any particular purpose other than they figured out a way to do them – also deserves something. Whether that something is praise, or the suspension of Baker’s artistic license, probably depends on how much you’ve had to drink. “Not enough” is almost certainly the answer there, though I can’t find it in my heart to despise this mongoloid instance of shot-on-video horror-comedy to the extent it likely deserves.

The Somnambulists (2006)

Rating: D – though as a short, B

Dir: Kevin Lane
Star: Tara Goudreau, Jack Redmond, Calvin Green

The film here made me want to lead a mob of torch-wielding villagers on Pendulum Pictures’ HQ. It was just getting going, when the credits started rolling again. “That’s weird,” I thought – my first instinct was the DVD had skipped back to the beginning. No: these were different. I finally realised why: they were end credits. This was a short, only 25 minutes in length. The only way it reached feature length was if you included the making-of documentary and a large chunk of footage from the premiere. Looking at the running time on the cover, that’s exactly what Pendulum did. It may seem churlish to complain, given the price of the set, but it’s underhand and sneaky. Dammit, I won’t go, “What? Five features and a short? That’s not worth $9.99!” Be honest up-front and I’ll love you for it; lie to me, and why should I trust you next time? It’s just like any relationship. 🙂

Anyway, not the makers’ fault and, for what it is, this is kinda interesting; Francesca (Goudreau) learns from her grandfather (Redmond) of the folklore that says the dead who have been wronged can come back to us in our dreams. Is that why she’s having terrible nightmares? And are these connected to the serial killer at loose in the town where she lives? As the first twenty minutes of a feature – which is how I was watching – this has an interesting premise, and then the focus shifts nicely onto two cops investigating the killer. But to have the carpet yanked out from under me, as I was settling down to enjoy a good feature-length yarn, evoked a sense of abandonment, previously only experienced in a drunken state and at the hands of strippers. Curse you, Pendulum Pictures!

Hellbound: Book of the Dead (2003)

Rating: C-

Dir: Steve Sessions
Star: Jeff Dylan Graham, Elizabeth North, Lucien Eisenbach, Sequoia Rose Fuller
a.k.a. Cadaver Bay

Not to be confused with Hellbound: Hellraiser II, the film here has more in common with classic horror short story, The Monkey’s Paw, dealing with the dangers of bringing a loved one back from the dead. Diane (North) needs a certain magical volume to resurrect her dead sister; when she and other half Lane (Graham) find it, they end up killing the current owner (Eisenbach). The upside is, it provides someone on whom to test the spell. However, it doesn’t appear to work, so Lane chops up the body, embeds it in concrete, and dumps most of it at sea. Now the really bad news; the magic actually worked, and the bits that didn’t get sunk want revenge. Meanwhile, Diane has decided not to bring back her sister, who was killed by – I kid you not – a flying hubcap to the skull, and revive her father instead. Let’s just say, the words “unqualified success” do not apply there.

Nor do they apply to the film as a whole, which takes a good idea and drains most of the interest from it. The main culprits are too many unnecessary scenes, or ones which badly mangle their purpose – such as a bit of bondage next door, interrupted by a phone-call, which then suddenly turns into Exposition Central. There are many others which serve no particular purpose, except to get the movie to the necessary length; indeed, it’d have been an improvement had this and The Somnambulists (above) traded running-times. While I must say, the crawling hand FX are very impressive, there’s a reason why The Monkey’s Paw came in at less than ten pages long. Sessions needed to develop the idea further here, in order to make it capable of sustaining a feature.

The River: Legend Of Llorona (2006)

Rating: D

Dir: Terrence Williams
Star: Will Morales, Mary Sanchez, Joel Bryant, Denise Gossett

The figure of La Llorona is a staple of Mexican folklore: with some variations, the story is of a woman, abandoned by her husband, who drowns her children in a river. As a result, she is doomed to haunt the location of her crime for eternity. It’s an interesting idea, ripe for a spooky cinematic telling that’s full of atmosphere. Unfortunately, The River is not that film, its poverty-row production values eventually proving too much of a distraction: for example, any sense of history is largely derailed by the movie obviously being shot in a suburban California housing development. Here, the focus is on Miguel (Morales) whom we first see with a bound-and-gagged woman in the back of his car. After an accident, he’s forced to take refuge in an inn, from where a web of deception, murder and paranormal activity then unfolds.

The makers, like many low-budget auteurs, seem proud of the fact this was shot in only six days. But let me point out, it’s only good when you’re Roger Corman or Jim Wynorski, and time is money. Here, the results look appallingly rushed, in almost every way, and especially the use of blue-screen, often to little apparent purpose. For amateur film-makers, time is your ally; with no deadlines to meet, if you take months to get it right, so be it. Sure, though a long shoot increases cast availability and continuity problems, the end-result looks much better. Bad Taste took four years to film: that helps explain why Peter Jackson is now a god among directors, and Terence Williams is not. There are two more in the Llorona series, the last one shot in three days. Can’t honestly say I’ll be seeking them out.

Sleep Disorder (2005)

Rating: D

Dir: Chris Penney and Brian Demski
Star: Nate Fennema, Gina Retan, Russ Fithen, Kathy Allen

Well done Pendulum, for another movie so obscure it doesn’t appear in the IMDB [2022 update: it does now!]. I would, however, have been more impressed had said film not largely sucked. Nate (Fenema) is in a ghost-hunting team making a documentary. However, after kicking some flowers about on a grave, he is plagued by nightmares, and when these start to seep over into his day life too, becomes increasingly unhinged. It’s the kind of storyline that stands or falls on the central performance, and needs to be pitched carefully to retain the audience’s sympathies. To be blunt, Fennema isn’t up to it, and as a result you don’t care what happens to him. The production values are pretty cheapskate as well, with the makers overusing all the “effects” buttons on their camcorder. Even this’d be forgivable with a solid plot, but at the end, an entirely different reason is given for the harassment, negating much of what’s gone before.

Credit is due in some areas, such as using local bands to provide the music – while it may not always work here, I appreciate the effort and this helps both sides gain exposure. There’s also a decent heart-ripping. Beyond these points, however, I’m struggling to find much in a positive vein to say about this. There are scenes where the lighting is so badly set-up (artificial) or used (natural) that it becomes near-impossible to work out what’s going on, and at one point the top half of the frame is a big, black blot. It would be charitable to describe the dialogue as poorly-improvised; at least, I hope it was improvised, as if not, large chunks are delivered amazingly badly. Overall, this is a disappointing note on which to end the box-set.