Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Dark Reel (2007)

Directed by:
Josh Eisenstadt

Sometime in the 1950s, struggling actress Scarlett May (Alexandra Holden) meets a talent scout from Spotlight National Films, who asks her if she'd like to do a screen test for their studio. She's lured to a warehouse and ends up starring in a snuff film instead, getting strangled and then dismembered before the cameras. 53 years later, Spotlight National is still an operating studio, churning out B-movie titles such as "Gnome Killer," "Nightmare Slasher" and "Snakes on a Crane." Horror fanboy Adam Waltz (Edward Furlong - looking a bit rough and pudgy here), who has just followed his bitchy débutante ex-girlfriend all the way from Virginia to Los Angeles, wins a one-line walk-on roll in the studio's latest effort "The Pirate Wench," where he quickly becomes affiliated with the (mostly self-absorbed) cast of crew. Soon after, a masked killer starts bumping people off who are in some way affiliated with the studio. Who is doing it? Why are they doing it? And how is this connected to the 1950s slaying?

This list of possible suspects and red herrings is about a mile long, but thankfully the majority of actors they cast do a pretty good job and are fun to watch. Lance Henriksen gives a typically strong showing as troubled studio head honcho Connor Pritchett, who equates the murder of a starlet with free publicity. Tiffany Shepis gives a very appealing performance as friendly horror movie queen Cassie Blue, and even somehow manages to have some decent romantic chemistry with her co-star. Tony Todd is fine as an intrusive detective (but unfortunately gets much of this film's worst dialogue), as are Emmanuel Xuereb as the studio's head of creative development and Jeffrey Vincent Parise as an arrogant and pretentious director. There's also veteran character actor Tracey Walter as an obnoxious tabloid journalist, Rena Riffel as Todd's partner, Whitby ("The Dream Child") Hertford, Mercedes McNab (from the TV shows "Angel" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") and some other familiar faces. Unfortunately, attempts at making some of these side characters quirky and original come off as obvious and embarrassing much of the time, such as a secretary who annoyingly mimics everything her boss says, a foul-mouthed sound man who screams all of his dialogue and a lead actor who has bad breath because of his obsessive onion eating.

The flaws certainly don't stop there. Toward the end (huge spoiler here so skip to the next paragraph if you don't wanna hear this) the film becomes sloppy and the revelation of the killer's identity is basically a huge cheat. While the 1950s killer is pretty obvious early on, the current killer (predictably the son of Scarlett May) is played by an actor who looks like he's about 35, yet is playing a character who is 53 or 54 years old. The scenes parodying low-budget horror / exploitation film-making aren't clever or funny enough to really add anything of value to this film. Another aspect that I didn't think really worked is how the ghost of Scarlett returns to try to help Furlong's character uncover the killer. Her image superimposed over the Pirate film footage looked hokey and wasn't even really necessary.

So while this is a highly flawed film (particularly in regards to the screenplay and grating comedy elements), it still managed to keep my interest for the most part thanks to some nice directorial touches, a pretty good Badalamenti-inspired music score and a decent cast. Also good are the cinematography and the killer's mask/disguise. Though there is a little blood/gore (mainly at the end) and nudity, there probably won't be nearly enough of either to please exploitation movie fans. The opening sequence, stylishly shot in black-and-white, is the best scene in the entire movie, and there's generally enough good here to make me want to see what else director Josh Eisenstadt may have up his sleeve.


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