Trick or treat? Tom Leins reviews a disturbing selection of Halloween horror DVDs.
Created and produced by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, who previously collaborated on hit shows such as Nip/Tuck and Glee, American Horror Story: The Complete First Season (20th Century Fox) tells the story of the Harmon family, who move into a restored mansion in Los Angeles, unaware that their new home is haunted by its numerous former inhabitants.
After suffering a miscarriage and nearly breaking up, Ben and Vivien Harmon (Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton) move from Boston to LA with their daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) to start a new life. While adulterous psychiatrist Ben and long-suffering Vivien struggle to rekindle their relationship, tormented Violet finds solace with enigmatic neighbour Tate (Evan Peters), much to Ben’s chagrin. Meanwhile, as the house starts to show its true colours, over-sexed next door neighbour Constance (Jessica Lange) and deformed Larry Harvey (Denis O’Hare) preside over the whole twisted circus, with a suspicious amount of inside knowledge.
After a deliciously twisted pilot episode -arguably one of the finest series openers in recent memory -American Horror Story wastes no time in cranking up the sleaze, intrigue and, importantly, horror -delivering some of the freakiest TV moments of the year in the process. With dark sub-plots galore bubbling under the surface, AHS boasts an embarrassment of riches, although the writers struggle to keep all of the balls in the air as the series progresses, and the cast end up jostling for screen-time.
Although it loses its way during the second half of the series -when the ensemble cast congeals into an incestuous dramatic mess -American Horror Story is easily one of the most striking TV shows of recent times. With top-notch support from the likes of Jessica Lange -who snagged a deserved Outstanding Supporting Actress Emmy for her first regular TV role -American Horror Story is a skilfully made, addictively creepy series. A second series, American Horror Story: Asylum has just started airing on FX, and if the writers can manage to iron out the smattering of flaws in this first outing then it could be pretty special
After scoring a big hit with his 2007 debut feature Paranormal Activity, Israeli filmmaker Oren Peli has seen a number of projects given the green-light, including hastily cancelled supernatural series The River, and Chernobyl Diaries (StudioCanal). The film, co-written by Peli follows a group of six intrepid travellers who decide to head off the beaten track while in Eastern Europe, and hire an ex-military ‘extreme tour guide’ to take them to Pripyat, the ghost town which had previously housed workers from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, which was abandoned in 1986 following the notorious nuclear disaster. Although security personnel guarding the exclusion zone refuse to grant the tourists access, resourceful guide Yuri navigates a route through the surrounding forest to give his guests what they paid for. However, after a brief exploration of the abandoned city, the group’s van breaks down, and they find themselves stranded -and far from alone…
After an identikit horror movie opening in which Chernobyl Diaries introduces its reliably tiresome cast, the movie hits its stride as the crew arrive at Pripyat. The ravaged backdrop, which was understandably filmed in Hungary and Serbia, bears a striking resemblance to the ill-fated Ukrainian town, and is arguably the film’s most compelling presence. Unfortunately, Chernobyl Diaries falls into the same trap that so many films of its ilk have fallen into before it, by frittering away the kudos earned from its ominous opening and degenerating into a by-numbers slasher-esque chase thriller. In conclusion: great set-up, shame about the derivative ending. Approach with caution -Pripyat style!
Cockneys Vs Zombies (StudioCanal) commences with contractors at an East London building site unlocking a 350-year old vault full of ravenous zombies. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the East End a posse of well-intentioned but decidedly inept would-be bank-robbers sees their plans to make away with the swag from a local bank and save their granddad’s retirement home backfire. Armed to the teeth, and confronted with London’s zombie hordes, the gang decide to take matters into their own hands and save their manor from the flesh-eating undead.
The daft-but-appealing title paves the way for a silly -but sporadically charming -zom-com romp, and Cockneys Vs Zombies plays out exactly how a seasoned genre fan might anticipate. The well-judged young cast (including Michelle Ryan [Bionic Woman], Rasmus Hardiker [Saxondale] and Harry Treadaway [The Disappeared]) elevates the proceedings above cheesy nonsense, but the oldâ€“timers (including Alan Ford [Snatch], Honor Blackman [The Avengers] and Dudley Sutton [Lovejoy]) give the film its heartbeat. Even doddering Richard Briers from Ever Decreasing Circles pops up for a surreal zimmer-frame-based sight-gag! Despite an engaging mixture of gore and gags, Cockneys Vs Zombies never really comes close to Shaun of the Dead territory, and feels too lightweight to achieve true cult status. Fun, but utterly disposable.
In Dark Tide (Revolver) Kate Mathieson (Halle Berry, Die Another Day) is a shark expert whose tour business went into terminal decline after her mentor was killed in a shark attack. Once dubbed ‘the shark whisperer’, South Africa-based Kate is haunted by the memory of the incident and unable to get back into the water. With bills piling up, Kate’s estranged husband Jeff (Olivier Martinez, SWAT) presents her with a lucrative opportunity to lead a thrill-seeking millionaire and his son on a dangerous shark dive -outside of the cage. Against her better instincts, Kate accepts the proposal, and after a tumultuous day on the water sets course for the notorious ‘Shark Alley’ in search of the ultimate thrill for her obnoxious pay-master.
Director John Stockwell (Blue Crush, Into The Blue) is never happier than when frolicking in the water, and Dark Tide sees him splash down in his cinematic comfort zone once again. Unfortunately, unlike nail-biting shark movies like Open Water and The Reef, both of which see their characters plunged into the deep blue sea almost straight away, Dark Tide wastes far too much time on the build-up, and only really comes into its own during the nervy final third. The chemistry between real-life couple Berry and Martinez is similarly lukewarm, and Brit actor Ralph Brown (still best known to viewers of a certain age as Danny the Dealer in Withnail & I) delivers the movie’s most memorable performance as the morally repugnant tycoon Brady Ross. Unfortunately, despite an engaging premise and a decent cast, Dark Tide is dangerously dull, and seems destined to end up in a watery grave, along with most of Stockwell’s other B-movies!