Movies Till Dawn: Scare Tactics

*indicates that this title is also available to view, rent, or purchase on various streaming platforms.

Dark Nature” (2022, Epic Pictures*) Joy (Emily Hannah Anderson) hopes to put a relationship with an abusive ex in the past through through a trip with a women’s group through the Canadian Rockies; there, she begins to notice signs of a presence following the group, but is it her lingering shell-shocked state or something more tangible and monstrous? Canadian survival horror from first-time feature director/co-writer Berkley Brady (“Creepypasta”) is largely effective in addressing a complex premise – how women contend with trauma – through a creature feature filter; a capable cast and excellent location photography are beneficial, but the struggle at the root of “Dark Nature,” handled deftly by all involved, is its defining element. Epic Pictures’ Blu-ray includes commentary by Brady and crew members, a deleted scene and music video from composer Ghost Keeper, and a short, “Peanut Butter Pals in the Secret of Cave Mountain Cave,” which manages to address crummy ’80s live-action kids’ TV, issues of inclusion, corporate greed, and peanut butter (lots of peanut butter) in just 20+ very funny minutes.

Dolls” (1987, Arrow Video*) Our own Elise Thompson neatly summed up the high points of this post-“Reanimator” effort by director Stuart Gordon, which pulls off the difficult task of delivering ’80s-style splatter-camp thrills and a genuinely sweet and melancholy rumination on childhood fantasy and harsh reality in the same film (that Bruno Bettelheim’s “The Uses of Enchantment” is name-checked in the credits should give you a preview of Gordon’s focus). Arrow’s Blu-ray – part of its huge and impressive “Enter the Video Store: Empire of Screams” Limited Edition box set, which pays tribute to the scrappy low-budget genre films of Charles Band’s Empire Pictures – features a 2K restoration that gilds Gordon and DP Mac Ahlberg’s haunted house visual palette, as well as three commentary tracks – one new track featuring Empire alum David DeCoteau, and two vintage tracks featuring Gordon, screenwriter Ed Naha, and members of the cast in various combinations. Two featurettes – again, one new (on editor Lee Percy) and one ported over from the Scream Factory disc – storyboard comparisons, and trailers round out this very satisfying ’80s effort.

The Monster of the Opera” (1964, Severin Films*) An experimental dance troupe takes up residence in an abandoned theater (the venerable Teatro Comunale in Terni), despite repeated warnings that the location also houses a vampire (Giuseppe Addobatti) with an affection for classical productions. Director Renato Polselli and writer Ernesto Gastaldi revisit their previous adventures in discreetly sexualized and surreal Gothic horror (including “The Vampire and the Ballerina”), this time eschewing any plot variations in favor of oneiric reveries. “Opera” (which bears no resemblance to “The Phantom of the Opera”) unfolds largely as a series of feverish dance routines and Gothic horror flourishes that occasionally dovetail in unique ways (e.g. a sequence in which the troupe dance feverishly to ward off the vampire’s hypnotic powers) while also indulging in very chaste adult material, including a hands-off Sapphic encounter. Silly and visually striking in equal measure, it’s worth noting as another brick in the foundation of Italian/European horror; Severin’s remastered Blu-ray – part of its excellent “Danse Macabre Vol. One:  The Italian Gothic Horror Collection” set – includes commentary by Kat Ellinger, who discusses Polselli’s eccentric career, interviews with Gastaldi (new) and Polselli (vintage and audio-only), and a conversation about the film with genre fan Mark Thompson-Ashworth.

The Witches Mountain” (1972, Mondo Macabro*) Luxuriously mustachioed photographer Cihangir Ghaffari and spooky Patty Shepard travel to the titular location in Northern Spain and discover, very slowly, how and why it’s earned its moniker. Spanish horror title opens on a jaw-dropping note (demonic child/animal death/lethal conflagration) before settling into an extended tone poem on supernatural belief and suggestion, delivered in the ripely velour aesthetics of ’70s European horror cinema. Story is secondary to the film – director Raul Artigot was primarily a cinematographer for Eurocult titles in the “Blind Dead” series and for Jess Franco, among others – and if the pace is glacial at times and the events seem to wander, the strikingly eerie imagery (with a nighttime funeral process in the woods among the highlights) will hold the attention, even if you’re not a ’70s Continental horror fan. Mondo Macabro’s Blu-ray is a vast improvement over most previous editions – the image, taken from a print, is sharp and features English and Spanish language tracks – and features informative commentary by David Flint, who discusses the film’s relative obscurity in the Spanish horror canon, as well as an appreciative piece on the late Shepard (an American who worked extensively in Spain), a career overview of/interview with Ghaffari (who had a wild career in Europe and the Middle East), and a making-of featurette with co-star Victor Israel and several Spanish film historians.

What the Waters Left Behind: Scars” (2023, Cleopatra Entertainment/MVD Visual*) Sequel to the 2018 Argentine horror film about a family of killers lurking in the real-life village of Epecuen, which was completely submerged by waters from a nearby lake from 1985 to 2009. Having dispatched a documentary film crew in the previous film, the psychotic crew now sets their sights on a squabbling rock band lured to the location by a creepy admirer. Director Nicolas Onetti takes over as sole director after co-helming the prequel with brother Lucino and while he benefits greatly from the location – an inherently unsettling place that suggests a South American Salton Sea by way of Pompeii – and delivers gallons of gore and reels of ugly violence, but has little of anything fresh or new to add to the roadside killer subgenre or even the previous film. Cleopatra’s Blu-ray includes a trailer and image gallery.

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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