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Review: Screamfest DVD Day, featuring Planet Terror & Return to House on Haunted Hill

Monday, October 15 was DVD and home video day at Screamfest, with screenings of two full-length movies slated for release on Tuesday, plus a short-subject shot for FEARnet.Com.

Up first was the unrated director’s cut of PLANET TERROR, which screened earlier this year as the first half of the GRINDHOUSE double bill. The good news is that, even though all the other phony trailers are missing, the film still starts with “Machete” – bogus preview for flick about a Mexican day laborer set up to take the fall for a political assassination – which was probably the highlight of GRINDHOUSE when it was in theatres. The bad news is that the new cut does not alter the film in any major way, so unless you loved PLANET TERROR to begin with, there’s not much reason to see it again. In case, you were wondering, despite restored footage, the “Scene Missing” title card remains in place, so you still will not learn what Wray said to convince the Sheriff to suddenly trust him.

After that came “30 Days of Night: Blood Trailers.” The twenty-minute short subject was compiled from an online video series that act as a kind of prologue to 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, which opens on Friday. As a sop to FEARnet’s target audience, the heroes are Internet geeks who unravel a terrifying secret; unfortunately, they are also complete idiots who have taken few precautions and provided no self defense – even though they know they are up against blood-thirsty vampires.

As a result, they all die bloody deaths – filmed with annoyingly shaky hand-held cameras, the footage juiced up with jerky cutting and loud noises – before they can reveal their discovery to the world. The story builds up to the big revelation that the vampires are planning an attack up north, where the sun won’t set for thirty days – which of course we already knew, so the whole things feels a bit pointless.

Last on the bill for the evening was RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, a sequel to the 1999 remake of the 1958 Vincent Price flick. It’s hard to imagine what Price would have thought of this (no, it’s pretty easy, actually; he would have hated it), but if you’ve ever wondered what RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK would have been like if Lucio Fulci had directed it, here’s your chance to find out: there’s almost enough blood to fill the gaping plot holes – and that’s saying something. Sadly, this makes the film sound more interesting than it actually is. The premise is that the horrible haunting from the first film was really the result of an ancient evil Baphomet statue stashed somewhere in the basement. Two rival factions return to “Hill House” (as it’s referenced in the dialogue – a nod to 1963’s THE HAUNTING) to search for the multi-million dollar prize. Not only do they have to contend with each other; they also have to avoid the still-lingering spirits that haunt the place. With its gore, nudity, and lesbo scenes (not just girl on girl but girl on girl on girl!), the film resembles an exploitation filmmaker’s wet dream, and in a way it comes more authentically close to the true Grindhouse spirit than PLANET TERROR.

The most interesting thing about RETURN is its gimmick. Shot as a direct-to-video effort, on disk the film will offer a series of “branching” options that allow you to choose what the characters do at various points in the story. The filmmakers tout that there are 96 variations, which sounds like a lot unless you passed freshmen mathematics: since each choice doubles the possible variations, it only takes six options to reach 64 variations. The seventh option would have raised the total to 128, but one outcome of option #6 brings the film to an abrupt, unsatisfying ending before the final choice can be reached.

I have a feeling that the most fun anyone is every going to have watching this movie was had on Monday night, thanks to the presence of actor Jeffrey Combs, who reprises his role as the ghostly doctor haunting the house. Combs sat through the film with his finger figuratively (if not metaphorically) on the button of the remote control, choosing whether characters would answer the phone or not, save the friends or save their own skin, resist temptation or give in (guess which?) Combs sometimes solicited audience feedback but mostly made his own decisions regardless of the hooting and hollering from the crowd.

Afterwards, someone stopped me on the way out to congratulate me for the fine job I did on controlling the film options. He seemed embarrassed when I had to point out that I was not in fact Jeffrey Combs, but I told him no apologies were necessary. It’s an honor to be mistaken for Herbert West, Re-Animator