Written by: Daniel McDonald
In these cool, crisp early autumn days, thoughts go to falling colorful leaves, apples, pumpkins, candy and costumes. My thoughts however, are busy wondering where the expected crop of horror films have gone.
Perhaps studios were expecting (as were many critics, fans and myself) that the surprise “GOTCHA!!” release of the extremely well disguised Blair Witch sequel, would monopolize the horror market as it’s previous phenomenal “cultural event” that the original had done. Weeelll not the case at all, despite a daringly original promotional campaign, some pre-release buzz (created by the films promo team or actual fan interest, at this point who knows or sadly, cares).
The disastrous critical response, paired with a big “so what” from fans (perhaps appetites had been satiated by two major surprise productions Lights Out and especially the masterful Don’t Breathe) left a rather large empty space in the “just in time for Halloween” market. Nowadays, however we have so many options to help by putting video, cable and TV bandaids on our frightfan boo boos.
Having no real in house new release options, I’ve turned to the plethora of not yet seen recent releases (one of those cross your fingers and roll the dice boo boo fixers listed above). One has to admit the amount of choices can be overwhelming, so I decided to hold my nose, metaphorically…I hoped…and dove right into the cable TV pool.
In a simply convenient stroke of luck, l chose from the dozens of anonymous collections of “Best Horror Selections” that were recently added to my Netflix/You Tube collections. It was a film that was the final effort from Dimension/RKOs three picture deal using the banner of Tales from the Crypt (an offshoot of the usually well done Horror Comedy cable series from the hit or miss horror of the 1990s).
I say convenient and stroke of luck, because as it turns out, I went to college and became very good friends with John Kassir, the voice of the love him or hate him Crypt Keeper! I stayed in touch with John and every once in awhile we’d call and catch up, sometimes about the show, which was really cool.
The reason I said “roll of the dice” regarding these new collections is because they are untitled, not really related in any way, and range in quality from surprisingly good to oh dear God how can I find the creative team that spewed out this drivel and have a slap war?
Well as it turns out my chosen vid-plc was quite unusual in the fact that it had credits that had me yelp out “ohs” because of the fairly hIgh recognition factor of cast and technical crew involved with this film. Unfortunately there was a definite good/bad list attached to Ritual…the first being that even though the series usually hit the mark, the previous two cinematic efforts were…less than impressive, to be kind.
Well, Ritual is a 2002 production that got a very limited release based on poor test screenings. It then spent five years on the shelf, until its video release. The studio decided to remove the Tales from the Crypt banner from this final film to see if it would hurt or help its box office and press…as it turns out the banner was replaced and no recognizable change occurred.
While watching the credits I noticed that the long lost Jennifer Dirty Dancing Grey was the lead. I really enjoyed all of her film and television performances, and thought that while her nose surgery was a bit unfortunate, all it really did was make her less unique, she is still beautiful and in great shape. Surgery did nothing to hurt her acting skills, and I think she, quite admirably carried most of the challenging narrative very well. The Zombie genre, especially the older pre-living dead efforts that usually had great atmosphere, were never my favorite cup of blood (sorry, Mr.Kassir I felt a Crypt Keeper pun was needed).This film has a bit of pedigree as it is based on the 40s classic I Walked with a Zombie (strong on atmosphere and imagination, short on horror). Director Jaques Tourneur and Producer Val Lewton created a series of films (The Cat People is my favorite) that stressed atmosphere, imagery and imagination over the more overt Monster movies from Universal. The combination of the spine of 1940s “use your imagination” and 2001 “keep the video crowd involved” horror universes may have seemed an easier marriage than it actually was. Certainly the team of hot button producers such as Richard Donner, Walter Hill, Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis helped give the film it’s stylish, sleek look. It had a 10 million dollar budget and looked much more expensive than that. As a cinematography fan, I appreciated Douglas Milsomes use of almost non stop but smoothly almost lyrical camera movements to seduce us, using what the audience feels the film should look and feel like, as a tool to put us in the mentality of the characters we’re watching, where there’s a slowly building paranoic undercurrent of evil. This sounds better than it works, because director Avi Leshner and writers Rob Cohen and Mr. Leshner feel the need (possibly because of pressure from that powerful team of Producers) to play into the 2001 mentality, so several red herring dreams/nightmares, and episodes of gratuitous gore (well done by Kurtzman, Nicitero and Berger), and a sometimes very witty script (listen well to the throw away lines they are funny) but felt intrusive in the evocative, traditional Old World feel that the creative team is trying to maintain.
Other performances by Craig why can’t I ever be the hero Sheffer, a very Tim Curryish Tim Curry, and a highly effective Gabriel Cassius are fine, but the really charismatic, beautiful, scene stealing (stealing hell, this is highway robbery) turns by the absolutely stunning Kristen Wilson and especially charming, handsome Daniel LaPaine were absolutely wonderful, l couldn’t take my eyes off of them, and they’re given some fairly difficult plot developments to pull off.
My impression is the press and fans, felt the film unwound far too slowly to achieve any sense or horror. I felt that the basically traditional RKO feel of the narrative didn’t become any more effective using some present day, almost comically duh duh duh duuuuuh horror tropes, it didn’t create a fully effective hybrid. But the professional efforts of the talent on both sides of the camera, the fact that Jennifer Grey does an impressive job, and looks incredible (this is 25 years after Dirty Dancing) makes for a perfectly fine rainy afternoon time kille. Be sure to tell John I said “Happy Horrordays!”… I’m just saying…