Movies till Dawn: Creepy

Night Caller” (2022, 123 Go Films) Grisly supernatural thriller which channels the grimy vibe of ’70s and ’80s slasher/grindhouse fare while also finding room for writer-director Chad Ferrin‘s eclectic perspective. Susan Priver stars as a psychic working for a cut-rate phone line who begins to receive not only calls from a stranger (Steve Railsback) who claims to be a serial killer, but also horrible visions of his crimes. The latter are remarkably nasty, but Ferrin finds equal room for character detail – like Priver’s dad (Ferrin regular Robert Miano), a bedridden but remarkably hardy cop movie fan, and Railsback’s visions of his own pop (Lew Temple), a fellow maniac with a critical eye – which lend heft and tonal variations to the grim material. Another unique effort from Ferrin, whose approach to horror embraces dark material like this, broadly comic/cult-minded titles like “Exorcism at 60,000 Feet,” and out-there explorations like “The Deep Ones.” Currently available as a VOD title on various platforms.

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue” (1974, Synapse Films) A device that emits sonic waves to kill crop pests also brings the recently deceased back to life as hungry zombies, which spells trouble for antiques dealer Ray Lovelock, traveler Cristina Galbo, and eventually, the residents of sleepy Manchester, England. Extremely effective Spanish-Italian horror was intended as a simple carbon of “Night of the Living Dead” but blooms instead into a bleak indictment of various political and social ills (ecological disasters, corporate technology, police prejudice) within the context of a gory zombie freakout; director Jorge Grau does well in balancing both sides of the equation, delivering gruesome special effects (courtesy of Giannetto de Rossi) and dramtic grit in a manner that evaded (and continues to evade) most walking dead titles. The Synapse Blu-ray – an impressive 4K restoration – bundles commentary tracks by historians/authors Troy Howarth, Nathaniel Thompson, and Bruce Holecheeck with a feature-length interview/retrospective on Grau’s career, two conversations with De Rossi, and a barrage of trailers and TV spots, including the memorable Stateside release as “Don’t Open the Window,” which was effectively parodied in “Grindhouse.”

Offseason” (2021, RLJE Films) Florida – an appropriate location for nightmares – is the setting for writer/director Mickey Keating‘s unnerving thriller about secrets and cults on a remote island. Indie faves Jocelin Donahue and Joe Swanberg are the tense couple investigating the desecration of her mother’s grave; a cast of eccentric/alarming figures (including the great Richard Brake and Larry Fessenden) give fair warning to unholy deeds involving demonic pacts, all of which go unheeded. Keating’s script is hazy in terms of explanation and leaden in dialogue, but his talent for shivery visuals (aided by Mac Fisken’s photography) and pacing pushes audiences to follow Donahue’s lead and dig deeper into the film’s mysteries, much to their peril. No extras on RLJE’s widescreen Blu-ray.

Retribution” (1987, Severin Films) Artist Dennis Lipscomb not only survives his suicide attempt but also develops paranormal abilities that may have come as the result of a death that occurred at the same time as his fateful plunge from his Downtown LA loft. Oddball supernatural chiller – a staple of video rental stores in the ’80s and ’90s – benefits greatly from TV director Guy Magar‘s caffeinated approach and neon-heavy aesthetic (well abetted by Alan Howarth’s thunderous electronic score), as well as a slew of baroque murders, including a sequence involving a pig carcass that defies belief. Severin has appointed “Retribution” with a colossal three-disc Blu-ray set (which includes a CD of Howarth’s score) featuring both the theatrical and gorier uncut editions, as well as commentary by Magar, interviews with the primary cast and crew, trailers, and even Magar’s student short.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1941, Warner Archives Collection) Elegantly appointed if somewhat bloodless remake of the 1931 film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s sci-fi moralist tale, with Spencer Tracy as a rigid Jekyll and a manic Hyde in modest but effective makeup. Director Victor Fleming (“Gone with the Wind”) generates some juice in Jekyll’s sadistic obsession with barmaid Ingrid Bergman, who figures prominently in a pair of ripely Freudian fantasy sequences with Bergman and Jekyll’s good girl fiancé, Lana Turner, who at one point shift astonishingly into pony play. Excellent photography by Joseph Ruttenberg generates a few glossy shivers; classic Hollywood fans may hew to this take, but horror devotees may want to check this while waiting for Warner Archives to release the 1931 version with Frederic March’s Oscar-winning performance. Warner’s gorgeously remastered Blu-ray includes the original trailer.

Thank you to Warner Archives Collection for providing a free Blu-ray for review.

Presagio” (2015, Indiepix) Slow-boiling Argentine psychological horror about a writer paralyzed by grief after the death of his wife and child, and the strange man with an umbrella who pushes him to complete his long back-burnered autobiographical novel, despite the trauma incurred by the writing. Low-budget, arthouse-minded feature may try viewers’ patience with its glacial pace (much of which unfolds in flashback) and frequently shifting perspective, but those who stay the course may find some of writer-director Matias Salinas’s images memorably disturbing. Indiepix’s DVD includes a making-of featurette and deleted scenes.

The Boy Behind the Door” (2021, RLJE Films/Shudder Originals) Parent-and-child nightmare brought vividly to life, and with exceptional skill on a limited budget. Much of the heavy lifting is done by its two juvenile leads (Ezra Dewey and Lonnie Chavis of “This is Us”), who play two friends abducted by largely faceless but entirely despicable types; one boy escapes but the other does not, which prompts both to undergo some harrowing trials in order to escape their captors. Their struggles are alarming, often heart-stoppingly so, but never tip into exploitative waters; suspense and atmosphere are foremost on the minds of writers-directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell, though plentiful blood is also split and the kidnappers’ plans are monstrous. RLJE/Shudder’s Blu-ray includes a blooper reel and “music video,” which is really just a digest-sized version of the film set to Anton Sanko’s score.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury, and George Newall, who created both "Schoolhouse Rock" and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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