Horror fans rejoice! We have got a very special treat for you. Our own Steve Anderson who runs this "Reel Advice" column has taken it upon himself to review every DVD available from the 2006 After Dark Horror Fest!

So turn out all the lights, grab your favorite blanket and get ready to be chilled down to the bone!

Movie PictureWicked Little Things:

Easily the second-best, tie for first, scariest movie in the entire After Dark Horror Fest, Wicked Little Things, packs an explosive and downright scary punch.

With a DVD menu capable of even blowing away the great The Gravedancers, Wicked Little Things brings us a tale of a widow who moves to the wilds of deepest Pennsylvania with her children. They're out to start a new life in a house left to her by her late husband's family. And waiting for her is a tale of zombies, ghosties, and child labor gone horribly awry.

Wicked Little Things is quite fun, in its way. The house used for a setting is a nightmarish, rambling monstrousity and the oppressively wooded set makes for plenty of scares. And even some rare laughs, too--I like how our widow brushes off her daughter's comments about going to school with inbred mountain hicks. Though it could have been even more fun:

"Why, of COURSE you're going to school with inbred mountain hicks, honey! You'll be valedictorian because you could add before you were twelve! AND, you'll be the prettiest girl in school because you have all your own teeth and have mastered a bra. You'll have your pick of boys to squire you to the Jeeeeu-nor PROM! This year's theme is 'I Gots My Own Shoes'!"

Now, I could continue having fun by introducing fun with cigarette lighters or borrow from the legendary Ed O'Neill for "nothin' spells lovin' like marryin' yer cousin!"--

Addytown, Pennsylvania! Where, as Einstein would put it, everyone's relative!

..but okay, enough fun. Back to the movie.

After about a third of the way through, the movie's tension levels will, almost with an audible snap, switch gears and go from mildly scary mock-the-redneck fest to wet-yourself holy-shit-scary fest. For those of you who have, for some reason, wondered what a pig sounds like when it screams in some combination of rage, pain and terror, now you will know.

And pigs shrieking in all the worst emotions is only the tip of this particular monstrous iceberg. Some of you purists out there may be thinking that this has been done to death. Granted, it's all a little familiar, what with the vengeful zombie / ghost children attacking the living, but it's the way in which it's done that gives Wicked Little Things its extreme punch. There's a certain something to it--maybe it's the fact that they're all children, or the other more plot-related oddities, but there's something in Wicked Little Things that gives it plenty of extra kick.

The ending has plenty of action to go around, and more than its share of scares. Most of the scary footage in the movie occurs in the last two thirds, and the last fifteen minutes of that will make an excellent climax. Plus, there'll be a nifty little twist at the end.

The special features include audio commentary and trailers for the After Dark Horrorfest, Dark Ride, The Hamiltons, Reincarnation, The Gravedancers, Unrest, and Penny Dreadful.

All in all, Wicked Little Things is just one more reason to make me question why the films to die for aren't the same kind of film we get in regular distribution.

Movie PictureThe Hamiltons:

I openly confess that, when I started The Hamiltons, I had the lowest hopes for it out of the entire After Dark Horror Fest lineup.

It looked like your average angsty serial killer pseudo-epic. No ghosts, no monsters, no stalking or fights for survival but rather some kind of Party of Five episode gone horribly wrong.

The plot certainly supported my admittedly preconceived notions--a family of hardworking pillars of the community, headed by the eldest brother following the deaths of the parents--Jennifer Love Hewitt, where are you?--who always seems to be a couple doors down from whereever the recent murders are going on.

The DVD menu, while superior to Unrest and inferior to The Gravedancers, has a monologue running in the background. This is, of course, pretentious as all hell. It still beats Unrest's total lack of any kind of DVD animatics, though.

And I have to admit that there's a little more going on than meets the eye here--part of what true horror is, I suppose--though for all the horrific twists you can still comfortably say it's just a Party of Five two-hour special gone horribly, horribly wrong.

But in all honesty, this doesn't even vaguely qualify under the After Dark Horror Fest's stated standards of too shocking, graphic or disturbing for general audiences. I've seen wildly worse than The Hamiltons on the direct to video circuit, let along theatres. Frankly, the movie they watch at about the half-hour mark looks like it'd be scarier than The Hamiltons is at its worst.

Perhaps saddest of all is when The Hamiltons goes for reaction by featuring a brother and sister makeout session. Oh, and the all-too-clear sounds of a two-guy lovefest going on in the next room. That wasn't pleasant either.

Give credit where credit is due--even as The Hamiltons grinds onward to what will hopefully be an interesting conclusion to make up for the boredome alternating with pointless brutality, they do manage to let slip just enough interesting plot points to at least begrudgingly make you continue.

The ending fills in the blanks pretty proficiently, and though there are no real clever twists or anything, it's a fair enough ending.

The special features include commentary tracks, deleted scenes, a blooper reel, and trailers for the After Dark Horror Fest, "Reincarnation", The Hamiltons, The Gravedancers, Unrest, Penny Dreadful, and Wicked Little Things.

All in all, fair is a good descriptor for The Hamiltons. It will prove to be odd and even a bit unique in its way, but it doesn't pack any scares in it. Not even the thought of a family like the Hamiltons in your neighborhood is all that frightening--you've already seen dozens of times worse.

Movie PictureUnrest:

One of the first medical ghost stories I've ever seen comes to us via Unrest a dark and sinister story featuring a whole lot of corpses.

Perhaps the only problem is, most of them are already dead when we find them, as opposed to being seen alive earlier in the film.

And this medical ghost story involves Alison, a young woman well on her way to becoming a doctor. But the road to physicianhood goes through Gross Anatomy, a class involving the dissection of human cadavers. But one cadaver, which happens to be the one Alison and her team are working on, seems to be a bit more lively than most. And Alison must find out exactly what is behind the cadaver before the cadaver can take more revenge on those disturbing it--or the spirit therein.

The menu for Unrest is a step down from The Gravedancers--it doesn't have the impressive opening animation, and doesn't even offer animations when clicking an option.

One thing I do love about Unrest is their use of lighting. Whenever our dear heroine Alison is stalking the hospital halls, she walks into darkness for a couple seconds until limited-range light comes on around her. This provides some absolutely frantic tension sequences, and it's used to good effect, though not to its best effect. Light will also go out behind her as she moves, another excellent trick.

Unrest doesn't have the same kind of constant assault of creepy moments that The Gravedancers had, but it's still got a lot going for it. First off, we don't see very many serious medical horror movies. In fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of one outside of your occasional Dr. Giggles or The Dentist type of second-rate splatter.

And there is definitely a shortage of ghost stories fused into a medical room drama. Think a weird combination of The Eye and ER, and you'll get the general idea of what kind of movie Unrest actually is. Which, frankly, is wildly original.

Wildly original, granted...but not all that scary. There's one death in the first half of the movie. There's no appearance of ghosts, and there's really only a smattering of unusual phenomena. That's a whole lot of buildup for the entire first half of a movie, and that drags heavily on a movie advertised as "too graphic" and "too shocking for general audiences".

The ending is actually quite thrilling, with lots of near-miss fatalities. If they would've put this kind of thrill into the hour and fifteen minutes preceding it, it would've easily been on par with the best. There's even a little bit of a twist ending, which is an extra plus.

The special features include trailers for The After Dark Horror Fest, Dark Ride, The Hamiltons, Reincarnation, The Gravedancers, Penny Dreadful, and Wicked Little Things.

All in all, there's nothing wrong with Unrest by any stretch of the imagination. It's only real failing is that there's not a whole lot specifically scary about it. It's a very original movie, but as a horror movie, it's a bit lacking.

Movie PictureReincarnation:

If there was any movie in the After Dark Horror Fest expected, even required, to be good, it is Reincarnation.

Why so much pressure on this one particular film? That's an easy one. See, the director of this little beauty is none other than Takashi Shimizu, director of none other than the Ju-On series. Longtime readers will remember that I consider the original Ju-On to be one of the scariest movies of all time. So with the baddest of the bad ass Japanese directors at the helm of both the film and the script, it had damn well better be good.

The menu will bear out--though not quite as good as the amazing wonder The Gravedancers was, it's apprpropriately ominous, with plenty going on in the background

The plot certainly suggests no problems. It's a ghost story, just like Ju-On. Except this time, a film crew's gone to a hotel with a particularly violent history to re-enact the killings that took place there thirty five years ago. Anyone who's seen ghost hunting shows on various cable channels will understand that this is widely regarded as a Bad Idea. And indeed, that's what happens. Fact became fiction becomes fact again as the cast of the film are killed off in the manner in which they are to die on film.

Freaky, no?

Shimizu employs one of the guaranteed best scare devices the Japanese cinema has ever known--silent, freaky little girls holding creepy, deformed dolls. Now THAT is scary shit. Think about it--watching some little six year old with a pug-fugly little doll in her arms as she stares you down like she's trying to figure out whether or not you taste good? Creepy!

And the often-favored Japanese plot device of "there's something creepy in the background and it's just STANDING THERE!!" will also be in frequent attendance.

The more you watch through Reincarnation, the more you realize that you have to watch it like a hawk. Because on more than one occasion, someone will react to something scary they just saw, only to miss something else completely different and equally frightening happen in the background. Watching reality occasionally boil away to be replaced by some new phantom reality is a shock, and not surprisingly, quite a treat.

The ending launches off the biggest surprise I've seen in a good long while. Frankly, if it came any farther out of left field they'd be calling this sucker The Green Monster instead of Reincarnation. Oh, there's also going to be a really, really freaky scene involving that pug-fugly doll. Trust me, don't eat or drink anything during the last nine minutes. You're likely to choke.

The special features include a director's introduction, a couple of making of featurettes, deleted scenes with commentary, and trailers for the After Dark Horror Fest, Dark Ride, The Hamiltons, The Gravedancers, Unrest, Penny Dreadful and Wicked Little Things.

All in all, Shimizu does not disappoint. Though it's not quite the wild, insane romp of terror that Gravedancers was, it's easily got the number two slot.

Movie PictureThe Gravedancers:

Too graphic? Too disturbing? Too shocking for general audiences? Then you must be talking about the After Dark Horror Fest, eight movies that'll have you wishing someone wasn't underestimating studio audiences so deeply.

The plot is simple and yet all the more chilling for its simplicity--three old school chums mourn the passing of a friend by visiting his grave late one night. One friend finds a small postcard on his old friend's grave, and, deciding he likes the message, repeats it and follows it. By dancing on several marked graves. This, of course, gets the occupants of said graves extremely pissed off. And the results of that pissing off will be a nightmarish trip the likes of which you've never seen before.

Now, the first thing you'll notice about this sucker is the DVD menu. They went all out on this beastie and it shows--it's an animated menu easily on par with the best I've seen. That's a definite mark in its favor--at least they took they time to do that much with style.

They'll throw plenty of freak-out moments into this sucker--in fact, they'll be coming at the rate of, roughly on average one every four or five minutes. Gravedancers will not keep you longing in the old shocks and terror departments. In fact, that's one of the great things about Gravedancers--they will keep things moving and they will do it in grand style.

In fact, the first half hour will be deovted almost exclusively to moments that will have you questioning your own sanity, or rather, would if they were happening to you. But even just watching it is at least a minor-league freakout. More so if you're not used to this sort of thing.

Plus, there are some truly excellent special effects going on here. There's a beautiful sequence involving fires that appear seemingly out of nowhere that is very, very difficult to spot the wires on--in fact, I can't. Excellent effects work will abound, from incredibly realistic corpses to amazing fire effects.

Frankly, if this is one of the films "considered too graphic" for theatres, then I think someone needs to seriously reevaluate what's "too graphic". This is clearly, clearly one of the best horror movies I've seen in a good long while. This is on par with some of the very best--not just the menu but all over. Movies like these will make it worth going to the theatre again.

If the rest of the After Dark Horror Fest titles are like this, then man oh MAN I cannot wait for the 2007 After Dark's Horrorfest! This is weapons-grade horror at its unquestionably finest.

The ending is not only an excellent capper to the ninety minutes of terror, it also includes a last little surprise to round things out.

The special features include a filmmaker's commentary track, cast and crew interviews, a making-of featurette, an original trailer, deleted scenese, storyboard gallery, and trailers for The After Dark Horrorfest, The Hamiltons, Reincarnation, Penny Dreadful, and Wicked Little Things.

All in all, Gravedancers is a marvelously forceful work, full of punch and scary moments that'll make you wonder if, maybe, the films "too graphic" for theatres may not be just what the theatres need.

Movie PicturePenny Dreadful:

Penny Dreadful--it's a really, really old term describing a kind of horrific postcard that cost a penny. It was one of the predecessors to the modern horror movie, so thank the penny dreadful, kids.

And on this penny dreadful, we get a girl named Penny (wow, whatta coincidence, huh?) who survived a car wreck not so long ago. Now, out for a long car ride to face her fears, she finds herself running afoul of a mysterious hitchhiker who manages to prey on those fears. And of course, Penny's got to try and survive this in one piece.

Penny Dreadful, first off, has the second best menu yet, only behind the incredible spectacle Gravedancers put on.

Also, in what is a masterstroke of creative application, Penny Dreadful manages to supply the single most reasonable excuse for picking up a hitchhiker that I've ever seen. We're all, ALL, aware of the dangers of such an act, including and especially in horror movies. But this time around, they've supplied a perfectly valid reason to pick him up, and I have to applaud Penny Dreadful for pulling that off.

The combination of Penny's fear of cars, and the absolute necessity of using the car to escape, and the fact that she'll spend a little time trapped in one, come together wonderfully to make a very tense environment. This tension adapts very easily to full-blown fear, making "Penny Dreadful" a very scary story. In fact, they manage to keep the tension high almost throughout the movie, giving it a very grueling, Misery-esque feel to it.

The ending actually managed to be downright uplifting, which was just truly amazing, especially for a horror movie. There are, rarely, such simple applications of pure justice in horror movies and Penny Dreadful makes the short list. Plus, of corurse, your good old fashioned twist ending will make its welcome appearance.

The special features include a behind the scenes featurette, a music video, a teaser trailer for Penny Dreadful, and trailers for the After Dark Horrorfest, The Hamiltons, Dark Ride, Reincarnation, Gravedancers, Unrest, and Wicked Little Things.

All in all, Penny Dreadful is a nice, clever little packet of thrills and scares. The constant tension is pulled up with nothing less than skill, though it's certainly not over the top. Anybody with even a vague interest in suspense titles should get a real bang out of Penny Dreadful.

Movie PictureDark Ride:

Tobe Hooper, eat your heart out.

Basically, what Dark Ride offers up is a serial killer who escaped from a mental institution (familiar, no?) who sets up shop in a theme park attraction called, not surprisingly, Dark Ride.

If it sounds familiar, it's because you may be aficionado enough to remember The Funhouse, Tobe Hooper's film that did almost the exact same thing.

Now, you may be wondering just how a a knockoff managed to get itself into the After Dark Horror Fest, possibly the greatest collection of fright films ever known. That's not too hard. They got there by doing something so outrageous, so shocking, so previously thought impossible that another example escapes me.

They made it better than the original they knocked off.

I'm not kidding, I'm not on crack, and I'm not any more insane than normal. The knockoff has surpassed the original. How is that possible? Let me lay it out.

First, they also have an opening menu fit to challenge Gravedancers. It's set up like an actual amusement park ride, complete with various rooms and track-like movement.

Second, they managed to inject humor into the proceedings, especially with the addition of a freaky hitchhiker into the mix. Not too much, though--it's clear that everyone involved knows this is a horror movie. But a few laughs every now and then never hurt.

Third, the combination of the fairly cheesy boardwalk ride coupled against the reality of mass murderers running amok using themes from the ride itself really makes for a good, chilling combination.

There is, however, one problem with Dark Ride. It's going to take a DAMN long time to get set up--fully an hour will go by before much interesting happens that's not just backstory. But once it does, oh man...look out. It'll be positively vicious.

The ending features a really rather shoddily done blood-filled dummy effect that should be too lowbrow for the After Dark Horror Fest. Oh, and there's also a pretty good surprise in there for those who got through the unusually long setup intact.

The special features include filmmakers' commentary, a making-of featurette, a special effects makeup featurette, a storyboard montage, deleted scenes, and trailers for the After Dark Horrorfest, The HamiltonsReincarnation", Unrest, Penny Dreadful, and Wicked Little Things.

All in all, you get what you pay for. An overly long setup time does yield a truly impressive climax, but that climax just can't hold for long enough to be satisfying. Solidly done, but still lacking that little something extra.

Cinemark Movie Club
Evan Jacobs