Well, it took the stamina of Sysiphus, but I managed to get through all "8 Films to Die For" at this year's After Dark Horror fest. The fest continues through this weekend. If you're not sure which to watch and which to avoid, check out my summary below. (Links lead to complete reviews at Cinefantastique Online.)
To begin with, the 2007 edition of the fest was a bit of a disappointment, compared to last year. Not that the 2006 films were great, but each one had something going for it - a concept, a premise, an attitude, a tone, a performance - something that made the viewing experience interesting if not engrossing. Probably the worst you could say about any of them was that one or two might have been duds that failed to deliver on their promise. 2007, on the other hand, was filled not only with duds but outright disasters. Sure, there were a few promising signs that this year might be an improvement; a couple of films were arguable better than anything seen last year, but these were overbalanced by the schlocky incompetence of the remaining titles. The misfires could not be brushed off as mere disappointments; they were outright bad - so bad, that you wondered how they managed to get into the fest at all. This is quite simply not the best that independent horror has to offer. There are many, many superior titles screening at films festivals each year. No doubt some of these films are holding out for solo distribution deals, instead of being packaged with seven other low-profile films; even so, it should have been possible for After Dark to field a stronger set of "8 Films to Die For." With that in mind, here is my ranking of this year's titles, from best to worse (in some cases, it's a pretty close call). As for drawing the line between those films worth recommending and those not worth bothering with, I would mark the cut-off exactly halfway down, right after NIGHTMARE MAN.
- THE DEATHS OF IAN STONE has the most intriguing story of this year's films, one whose outcome is not obvious in the first fifteen minutes. The ultimate explanation ends up being a disappointment, but the film is far more ambitious than any of its After Dark brethren.
- MULBERRY STREET offers a wonderfully convincing depiction of a New York neighborhood infected with a rat-bourn pestilence. As the film transitions into NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, it loses some of its conviction, but it remains interesting till the end.
- BORDERLAND is probably a more effective scary machine than any of the other entries. It uses an allegedly fact-based story as an excuse for a violent thriller whose gore edges into horror territory; the result is a questionable exploitation of real-life tragedy, but you have to admit that the results are effective.
- NIGHTMARE MAN is ultra-low-budget, but it shows an entertaining sense of fun when playing with typical genre movie cliches.
- CRAZY EIGHTS wants to be a haunting ghost story about long-buried guilt being avenged, but the narrative is muddled, and the scares are bungled. A good cast is wasted.
- UNEARTHED wants to be an entertaining monster movie, but the story and action scenes are incomprehensible, and the CGI effects will convince no one.
- LAKE DEAD is a rehash of old slasher motifs, seasoned with some unpleasant incest implications. Sleazy and silly, with its adult cast acting like dumb teen-agers in a bad FRIDAY THE 13TH sequel.
- TOOTH AND NAIL is a botched post-apocalyptic flick that doesn't really belong in a "horror" fest at all. The silly storyline expects us to believe that running out of gasoline will set civlization back not to the Victorian steam era but all the way back to anarchic savagery - within only a few years.