Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the Gateway Film Center’s premiere of Seven Hells: a collection of lauded horror short films that have made the festival circuit in recent years.
It is a real shame that short films rarely get significant distribution, because they can be a whole lot of fun: particularly in the horror genre. Seven Hells is a showcase of some of the best horror and horror-comedy short films out there, and is at its core an experimental attempt to promote them to a more casual theater-going audience. To say the least, the concept is well-intentioned: the films deserve a wider audience, and audiences deserve these films.
Seven Hells only has a loose frame between the segments, but it doesn’t need to be flashy: its strength is in the existing short films that make up the content, and they have already proved their muster to festival audiences. The connection between the segments is simple: each story is a tale of everything metaphorically (or literally?) going to hell for someone. It is simple, and it works.
The weaknesses, where they exist, are related to the mostly uncharted format of the movie. The short films vary wildly in tone, with some being campy horror-comedies (Killer Karts, Horrific) and others that are dead serious and macabre (Cold Turkey, Black Sugar). This causes a little bit of whiplash, but it doesn’t ultimately damage the collection as a whole. Would it be a better experience if it were solely focused on one style or the other? Probably, but I don’t think it would be dramatically different in the end, and there is something to be said for the collection showcasing the diversity within horror.
The pacing is somewhat hampered by the inclusion of credits within each segment (rather than being bookended on the entire collection), but that’s the extent of the complaints I have with Seven Hells. When it comes down to it, the intention of the movie was to expose some fine films to a more casual audience of horror fans, who would otherwise never have seen them. In that regard, I thought it was quite successful. After all, I’m a horror fan who can’t make it to film festivals, and I would not have seen this shorts without Seven Hells.
Speaking of which, here are the trailers for the seven short films that comprise Seven Hells:
The dialogue in Jack Attack is really snappy, and the effects in this are top-notch. I love the original concept here, and it also features the rarity of a decent child actor.
Incident on Highway 73
This is suspense mastery, and yet another brilliantly original concept. I also thought this had some particularly brilliant sound work and cinematography that fantastically enhanced the tension.
Seeing the trailer for this is what got me in the door to start with. It is a funny short without being overtly humorous, instead relying on the outlandishness of the concept. Killer grocery carts? Yes, thank you. It also manages to be of genuinely good quality, resisting the temptation to drift into Tromatic territory with its off-the-wall premise.
Certainly the darkest film in the collection, this was the only time I felt some real tonal whiplash during Seven Hells. That said, Cold Turkey has some astounding practical effects, and is frankly haunting in its depiction of a self-starving cannibal.
Blac k Sugar
Black Sugar was maybe the coolest stylistically out of the bunch, and is also the only one I recall to extensively use computer-generated special effects. I am typically a bigger fan of practical effects, but the CG here is used brilliantly to depict a hellish alien world. Black Sugar is yet another incredibly original concept, focusing on a group of teenagers experimenting with a mysterious drug.
A clearly Sam Raimi inspired tale of one man’s struggle against a Chupacabra, this is an absolute blast. It is probably the shortest entry, but it might be the one that stuck with me the most. Next to perhaps Killer Karts, it is the funniest of the bunch.
Seven Hells is the brainchild of Jason Tostevin, who contributes the final segment in the collection. Til Death has some great comedic acting and some really fantastic make-up effects, but there were a couple of things that bugged me about it story-wise. Unlike the others, it actually has a happy ending. That alone wouldn’t really bother me, but the characters in the segment are, in my opinion, the most loathsome in the collection (I’m including Cold Turkey in there). The main characters are all in unhappy marriages, and decide that they should all kill their wives to escape their respective hellish matrimonies. They are all childish and cruel, and the karmic system that underlies most horror stories would leave them to their hellish fates, and definitely not allow them to live happily ever after.
There is an implication that the characters mature over the course of murdering their wives and killing themselves, but you don’t really see it happen. The credits roll over happy images of the various married corpses, who have apparently re-found love after their deaths. It just didn’t feel right to me: they should have been doomed to an eternal life with their undead spouses to pay for their heinousness, but instead they learn to enjoy it.
All of that said, Til Death has some really great comedic moments, and it is exceptionally well-crafted. Honestly, I might just be over-thinking it: the film leans more towards comedy than horror, and I may have just wanted it to lean the other way. It also probably wasn’t the best capstone for the collection given the upbeat ending: after all, the theme of Seven Hells is about things going bad.
It is to be seen what sort of distribution Seven Hells will get, but my hope is that it will go far and wide. Even if it doesn’t, I hope that the concept isn’t abandoned: the format of Seven Hells is undoubtedly the best way to publicize short films to a larger audience, but it may some tinkering to make it more marketable overall. In any case, I whole-heartedly recommend checking it out if you can. Who knows, maybe it will pop up on Netflix one of these days?
Cushing/Lee ’72 is a ticket that would have gotten my vote.
A couple of days ago, I decided to dive into my immense backlog of DVDs to find some blog fodder. I was planning to watch through some Hammer films to compare with Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow”, based on an interesting theory I came across on “The Nostalgia Critic” last week.
That “Sleepy Hollow” theory is something I may get into at another time. In any case, I pulled a couple of Christopher Lee / Peter Cushing combos out of my collection, and popped them in for an evening of British horror. I honestly assumed from the casts that both would be Hammer films, which I don’t think was an outlandish assumption for a film from that time period. Interestingly enough, only one of them was Hammer, but both films came from the good ol’ year of 1972. Also, they were both thoroughly delightful. So, here they are!
First up is a delightful international flick called “Horror Express.” A couple of months ago, this was recommended to me based on some of the outrageously ridiculous science in the film, so I decided to pick it up when I spotted it in the bargain bin. What they didn’t mention is that the film is an absolute blast, and the cheesy pseudo-science in the plot is just icing on the cake.
There is a mad monk, a snarky Soviet commander who takes over the train (played by Terry Savalas, who is awesome), pale-eyed zombies, a possessed defrosted neanderthal, and an alien adversary that kills people by staring at them with glowing red eyes. It is a delightful time, and the whole thing is hanging out on YouTube.
Nearly the whole movie takes place on the Trans-Siberian Express, which gives the movie an interesting claustrophobic vibe (one of many things that reminded me of “The Thing” in this movie). Cushing and Lee play rival anthropologists who coincidentally wind up on the same train, but they learn to cooperate fast when things turn bad. Lee’s character has discovered a corpse he believes to be the “missing link” in the history of human evolution, and tries to hide his cargo for the first section of the film. Of course, things go wrong when the ancient corpse wakes up and starts killing people. It winds up being dispatched pretty quickly, at which point Lee and Cushing poke at its eyeballs a bit during an autopsy. After looking at images of dinosaurs and space in the creature’s eyeball fluid under a microscope, they come to the brilliant conclusion that the missing link was possessed by a parasitic alien, and that the parasite has found a new host on the train. Spooky!
The rest of the movie involves some great alien possessions, care bear stare deaths, a train explosion, and some generally delightful practical make up effects. Here are a few stills:
I can’t recommend “Horror Express” highly enough. It dances along the line of being a good-bad movie and being just a good movie, but it is a train-load of fun either way. It might actually be my favorite Cushing / Lee movie, though there are a lot of good ones out there. Including the next flick…
“Dracula AD 1972” is one of the later Hammer films Dracula movies, and probably the most ridiculous of the bunch. It starts with the supposed final battle between Cushing’s Van Helsing and Lee’s Dracula in 1872, which ends with both men dead (Lee is notably impaled to death by the spokes of a broken buggy wheel).
The movie then hops to the modern setting of 1972 (100 years to the day), where a young man named Alucard is dead set on reviving Dracula. He is played very hammily by Christopher Neame, who went on to have a successful career as a television character actor. Honestly, he is most of the reason why I like this movie so much. He goes over the top and beyond as Dracula’s #1 fan.
Coincidentally (or not?), Alucard is in a friend group that includes the great-great-granddaughter of the original Van Helsing. Cushing of course plays her protective grandfather (the identical grandson of the original Van Helsing), who is an aging expert on the paranormal. In fact, there isn’t any perceptible difference between this Van Helsing and the original at all, which I honestly didn’t mind so much. No need to mess with a good thing.
Through a particularly silly string of events featuring a plethora of 1970’s slang, partying, and astounding British-ness, Alucard successfully resurrects Christopher Lee’s Dracula via a blood sacrifice (of a Bond girl, no less) in an abandoned church. Dracula immediately makes it clear upon his reconstitution that he has come back specifically to wipe out the Van Helsing clan, but doesn’t do a whole lot to see that goal through. Most of the actual vampiric antics are left to Alucard and his goon, during which time Dracula presumably just hangs out in the abandoned church, mostly satisfied to let others take revenge for him.
Most of the movie plays out kind of like a cop drama, with Peter Cushing offering advise to a somewhat skeptical police investigator who is digging into the string of clearly vampire-inspired murders of the Van Helsing granddaughter’s friends. My favorite piece of advice Cushing gives to the cops is that they should look into Alucard as a prime suspect, because his name spelled backwards is “Dracula”. That is some deep detective work.
As you might expect, the young Van Helsing girl is ultimately kidnapped by the Dracula gang, leading to a pretty underwhelming final battle between Cushing and Lee that involves a tiny spiraling staircase. More notably I think is the fact that Alucard is dispatched by Van Helsing via a shower.
“Dracula AD 1972” isn’t quite as fun or as good as “Horror Express”, but it was still a pretty good watch. The Alucard character and all of the 70’s youth slang are hilarious, and the Satanic blood sacrifice scene is delightful. Really, the first 30 minutes or so has most of the best parts, between the wagon chase battle opening, the Satanic sacrifice, and the 1970’s youthful partying. I’d recommend giving it a watch if you want to see a campy Dracula movie, or just need an emergency dose of the early 70’s in your life.
Ah, and last but not least, “Dracula AD 1972” has a theme song for the ages. It is just amazing. Nothing says Dracula quite like funky french horns and saxophones. Give it a listen: