(A.k.a. THE HORROR NETWORK VOLUME 1)
Billing itself as "the ultimate horror anthology", this compendium of five tales was the brainchild of Brian Dorton and Douglas Conner - two of the six directors involved.
With no wraparound framing device, this is effectively less of a themed portmanteau a la CREEPSHOW or TALES FROM THE CRYPT, and more a case of five individual shorts - complete with their own titles sequences - disparately thrown together. Which is precisely what it is: Dorton and Conner apparently sat through over 200 contemporary horror shorts in a bid to handpick their favourite five and group them together for this 84-minute offering.
Inevitably, however, the results are mixed.
It all begins with 3:00 AM, a brief offering with a rural setting, in which the lead protagonist (Charlotte Armstrong) is bothered by a series of spooky telephone calls in the dead of night. Some decent cinematography aside, this really is too short to have any great impact and - despite director Lee Matthews' promise - is neither here nor there.
Much better is Joseph Graham's EDWARD, in which Hal (Nick Frangione) sits in a reclining chair while opening up to psychiatrist Aleksey (Artem Mishin) on one stormy evening. Hal warns of severe sleepwalking problems and advises that he dreads going to sleep, for that's when his alter-ego takes over and provokes him to do terrible things. Of course, Aleksey can't help but ignore all the warning signs and hypnotise his young patient into slumber regardless.
This takes a longer, slower, much more talky approach towards reaching its denouement, but is resultantly all the more satisfying. Frangione impresses as the troubled young man who comes across simultaneously as vulnerable and convincingly demented. There's a chill in the air too, thanks to keen use of sound design (those branches blowing against the window throughout) and shadows flitting across Aleksey's dimly-lit room. A fittingly dark finale dictates that this one maintains its momentum and is the first solid strike of this set.
Next up is THE QUIET, a second offering from Lee Matthews. This one finds deaf schoolgirl Alice (Jenni-Lea Finch) being dropped off by her school bus in the middle of the countryside, wondering her usual lift from her mother is. Instead, she opts to walk the remainder of the journey home but is freaked out by a blue van which keeps passing her slowly while playing a vintage Demis Roussos song. Enough to give anyone the jitters!
This one works well with more keen sound design from Matthews, which in this instance truly evokes the sense of dislocation that Alice feels while being thrown into a frightening daylight scenario of being all alone and under threat. There's a cruel twist in the tale too, so stick around for that.
MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS follows. This Spanish production, co-directed by Manuel Marin and Ignacio Martin Lerma, is the only subtitled segment proffered (all other episodes are English-spoken).
Wow. Not only is this stunningly photographed and intelligently edited in a manner which holds together a compelling storyline while throwing in the occasional flashback, this is also unremittingly fucking brutal fare.
It tells of a young woman, Cristina () and her mother Lola (), who live in isolation in modern Spain. When their relative Miguel (Jan Cornet) visits one Christmas Eve, he reveals a text message he's received which apparently accuses Cristina of some heinous deed. This in turn provokes long-buried memories in both women, kick-starting a downward spiral into madness as they recall the hideous abuse Lola suffered at the hands of her husband, all of which was witnessed by Cristina as a child.
MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS is fantastic filmmaking. So good, so harsh, so grim, that I almost fear what Marin and Lerma may come up with next. It's stylish and accomplished, but also unsparing when it comes to its depiction of domestic abuse (there's a violent rape that rivals the one in IRREVERSIBLE and a punishing moment of jaw-breaking madness which makes AMERICAN HISTORY X's most infamous scene seem twee) and haunting in its ideology of suicide as catharsis.
It's easily the highlight of the set. The producers obviously feel the same way, as the image on the DVD's front cover is lifted from this segment.
Which just leaves Dorton and Conner's own THE DEVIANT ONE with the unenviable task of following that and wrapping things up.
It's a black-and-white affair - the only film that's not in colour - and free from dialogue. Instead, its scenes are separated by onscreen quotes from the bible. Specifically, quotes that in modern times are dubious as fuck: warning of the evils of homosexuality, and so forth.
In the midst of all this we meet the hulking title character (Dorton), who lives an anonymous life in the centre of an unsuspecting suburban environment. He invites passers-by into his abode on occasion and kills them, occasionally bumming them post-mortem for good measure.
This feels less accomplished than the preceding segments but still has a fair amount of visual flair and ambience to get by on. Plus, once you've got past the scenes of Dorton receiving oral gratification from a disembodied head while in his bathtub, there's an amusing twist to the tale which makes sense of all the morality-baiting slogans peppered throughout.
Although uneven, it has to be said that overall this compilation is pretty good. The obvious highpoint is the 20-minute MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS. The disc truly is worth buying for that film alone. Even if you view the other four stories as nothing more than extras, they're very good ones at that.
The movie looks very good on Left Films' UK DVD. Obviously these shorts were made independently of one another so there's little consistency in look - some have deeper colour correction, aspect ratios fluctuate etc. But the transfers are solid throughout, which is what matters.
The 2.0 audio track on offer is also a solid proposition. The subtitles for CHRISTMAS are burned-in, but at least they're well-placed, well-written and easy to read.
The disc opens to a static main menu page. From there, a static scene selection menu allows access to the film via 5 chapters - basically allowing you to jump directly to the start of each short.
Of the limited bonus features on offer, the best by far is a couple of extended scenes from THE DEVIANT ONE. These introduce dialogue to early scenes (wisely cut from the final edit, as the script is pretty terrible) and a very brief - but graphic! - extra bit of bathroom naughtiness. It's also interesting to note that this 10-minute segment plays the short without the biblical text.
Along with the film's original 63-second trailer, we also get previews for SCARS, ABANDONED DEAD, CONSUMPTION, THE DEVIL'S WOODS, CLASSROOM 6 and BIND.
THE HORROR NETWORK is, on balance, an above-average compendium. Well worth a look - and you need MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS in your lives come December, trust me.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Left Films|