You don’t have to be a fan of scary movies to see that the annual After Dark Horrorfest model is good news for film lovers interested in novel means of booking truly independent movies with few or no stars into multiplexes nationwide. Last year, however, the festival took place over a single weekend and declined to screen any of its films in advance for the press, completely eliminating the possibility for word-of-mouth buzz to build. This year, that situation has been remedied, as the fest will play two weekends, and four of the movies have been made available to us in advance. Perhaps surprisingly, they’re not bad: Rather than relying on gratuitous gore and cheap shock editing to grab audiences’ attention, all four take their time to establish characters and environments at a relatively slow pace, which ultimately heightens the tension later, when all hell inevitably breaks loose.
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The best of the bunch is director Dario Piana’s The Deaths of Ian Stone, starring Mike Vogel as a young hockey player who stops to help someone lying in the road and is abruptly thrown in front of a train by some kind of shadow monster. He awakens in a new life as a successful businessman, but a few things are just a little off, and before too long he’s killed again, only to wake up in yet another scenario. A jaded horror fan might suspect a Carnival of Souls theme here, but it’s a whole lot loonier than that. What’s actually afoot is a full-on horror remake of Monsters, Inc., with the monsters in question being Stan Winston creations called “harvesters,” with vaporous bodies and scimitar-like hands, who get high on human fear, even though they could get just as aroused from love if they took the time. The back story is completely insane, but by the time it’s all revealed the movie has engendered enough goodwill that you roll with it.
Mulberry Street starts out like the sort of indie art-house fare you’d expect an up-and-coming film student to make, all about life in a run-down New York apartment building that’s about to be bought out, and the colorful characters who inhabit it. But soon a mutant strain of bubonic plague spread by rats starts turning all the inhabitants of New York into rat-faced zombies. Well, okay, they’re technically not zombies, since they’re not, strictly speaking, undead; also, they can be taken out by a good punch to the head, which is pretty funny. Tooth & Nail also features the residents of a big-city building under siege, this time by cannibals. It’s set in a future where society has collapsed because the world suddenly ran out of oil, and a group of survivors has formed a commune at an abandoned hospital. Until Michael Madsen and Vinnie Jones show up wanting to eat them. It’s a good setup that goes nowhere — The Road Warrior minus the roads, so what’s the point?
Finally there’s Borderland, which begins in shocking fashion, as a pair of Mexican cops are set upon by drug-dealing Santeria worshippers, then settles into a slower groove as a group of obnoxious college graduates (one of whom spouts hilariously gratuitous “ugly Republican” remarks for laughs) travels down to Mexico intending to get drunk and laid. When one of them goes missing after a night of doing ’shrooms at a carnival, the story becomes a crime drama of sorts. “Where’s the horror?” you might be thinking. It takes its time, for sure, but Borderland ultimately descends into a brutal orgy of torture and mutilation that’s harrowing to watch, because it’s played completely real. This is Wolf Creek–style, true-story-inspired horror, and makes the Hostel movies look like cartoons by comparison. Consider yourself warned. (Culver Plaza; Mann Plant 16)
—Luke Y. Thompson