The proliferation of fantasy film festivals and “midnight madness” programs at regional fests means that every year, there’s a large pool of independently produced horror movies that draw good buzz, but languish without theatrical distribution. A few video companies have been diligent about rounding up the best of these: Magnolia’s Magnet, The Weinstein Company’s Genius Products, and especially Lionsgate, which has its After Dark Horrorfest-endorsed “Films To Die For” series and its Sam Raimi-sponsored “Ghost House Underground” series. Following last year’s eight-title GHU bonanza, the Ghost House series this year has been cut back to a modest four, offering a handy round-up of what’s on horror filmmakers’ minds at the end of the ’00s. Primarily? Spreading infections, dangerous hicks, and creepy kids.
In Mark A. Lewis’ Canadian thriller The Thaw, Val Kilmer plays an environmental activist/scientist who discovers a frozen woolly-mammoth corpse infested with prehistoric bugs that breed under the skin of mammals. Soon, the students working alongside Kilmer are hacking off their own limbs to keep the creepy-crawlies at bay. The Thaw sports some genuinely scary bug effects, but the action is slow to load, and interrupted by dumb character choices and too many “When will people realize that global warming is a real problem?” speeches. A far better “the terror is spreading” premise anchors Tom Shankland’s British shocker The Children, in which two upper-middle-class families spend their Christmas holiday together on a sprawling estate, though their merrymaking is disrupted when their kids contract a virus that turns them into parent-killing psychopaths. The Children cleverly exploits the taboo against parents harming their progeny—even knife-wielding progeny—while building toward an effectively gory commentary on ineffectual modern parenting philosophies.
The problem of offspring also dominates Offspring, adapted by director Andrew van den Houten from Jack Ketchum’s cult novel about a clan of cannibalistic cave dwellers in coastal Maine. The film looks cheap, the acting quality varies wildly, and there are one too many subplots for a movie that’s less than 80 minutes long, but Offspring delivers the goods as far as gruesomeness and queasy anxiety go. It also conveys Ketchum’s vision of a world where “civilization” is a fragile illusion. Similarly, fear of primitives—especially foreign primitives—drives Seventh Moon, in which a young American couple visits China during Ghost Month and gets waylaid by a rural cult that offers them as a sacrifice to the spirit world. That’s a fine idea for a horror film, but writer-director Eduardo Sánchez—best known as one of the creators of The Blair Witch Project—botches it by shooting nearly every scene with shaky handheld cameras in heavy darkness, as though trying to claim the Blair Witch style as his defining characteristic as a filmmaker.
To be fair, Seventh Moon probably plays a lot better on a big screen with a large, receptive audience—the kind found at film festivals. On DVD, a lot of these between-the-cracks horror movies that Lionsgate and others release lose some visceral impact. Watching them requires viewers to imagine what the movie might be like under the right screening circumstances. These discs are more useful for genre buffs who like to track trends and keep an eye out for unpolished gems. The Children and Offspring are certainly worthy of consideration in that regard. And so long as the multiplexes remain stuffed with slick remakes and simple-minded gorefests, series like the Ghost House Underground releases will remain the best place for non-fest-going horror freaks to see movies that might actually make them squirm.
Key features: Multiple featurettes on each disc, all blandly promotional.