Recently I told my girlfriend that I had just seen an awful anthology horror film. Her reply? “There’s no such thing as awful anthology horror.” “Today there is,” I told her, and it’s true. George Romero’s Deadtime Stories, Volume 1 (on DVD July 12th, 2011) shirks the usual rule of thumb that any horror anthology has either one bad entry or one good one. Deadtime Stories doesn’t fall into either category, because all three of the installments in this disheartening collection are the sort of amateurish short films that most young directors would shop around to the occasional short film festival and, after getting summarily rejected, then let wither unwatched in a drawer somewhere as they tried to do better next time.
George Romero hosts this festival of “frights” (that’s right, it’s quotation mark time) from an easy chair, spouting half-hearted nursery rhymes and unconvincingly remarking upon how scary each short film is. Although he’s credited as an executive producer there’s little to suggest that he did much more than put his name on the film and let someone film him for fifteen minutes uttering lines that The Cryptkeeper would be ashamed of. One of the hardest parts of putting together a horror anthology is coming up with a wraparound device that ties all the shorts together, so that the result feels like a feature film rather than a collection of unrelated vignettes. Deadtime Stories doesn’t bother. It is but the first indication that we’re in trouble here.
With no pretense of a being a real film, I’m left with no better option than to review each short individually, free of context with the rest of its ilk. Here we go:
VALLEY OF THE SHADOW
Years after a young woman’s husband goes missing in the jungle – which looks suspiciously like an arboretum – she convinces a rich guy to finance a research expedition to locate her true love and uncover the mystery behind the strange plant he was searching for in the first place. Bad acting and awful dialogue are to be expected in this kind of thing, and almost forgivable, but a truly miserable score and uniformly high-key lighting do everything they can to make sure that Valley of the Shadow doesn’t become involving for a single, solitary second. It looks like a parody of a SyFy Channel Original Movie but without any of the dorky entertainment that such an ambition would suggest, and the story structure completely falls apart giving the duration of the film. There’s not enough time to tell this tale with any kind of narrative scope – even the film’s prologue is unnecessary – and making the attempt only robs the film of any sense of immediacy, and ultimately makes Valley of the Shadow seem even cheaper than it is, since it’s structured more like a feature and can’t back it up with significant time, character development or plotting. The filmmakers deserve credit for a pretty darned creepy idea for an ending, but lose almost all those points for everything leading up to it.
CRAVE Online Rating: 2.5/10
An alcoholic stumbles across a series of mysterious jade boxes on the beach next to his house and tries to sell them to an antique dealer who warns him that each box contains pieces of a disembodied mermaid who will do something pretty awful to the guy for opening them. I guess I’ve heard worse concepts for a horror short. There’s got to be a Tales from the Crypt episode in there somewhere. But a script with absolutely no interest in who the characters are brings down a fairly straightforward concept, because there’s no reason whatsoever to care about the protagonist. He’s an alcoholic, but why? If he’s so broke then why does he have the posh beach house? What does he want from life, and what would he spend the money from the jade boxes on anyway? Who knows, and more to the point, who cares? Only a (possibly unintentionally) hilarious climax in which the mermaid chases him around the house biting him repeatedly in the crotch makes any sort of impression here.
CRAVE Online Rating: 2/10
Here’s a weird one: in the actual DVD of Deadtime Stories this particular short is credited to director Tom Savini, the famed makeup and special effects maestro. On the DVD and online, it is not. I haven’t been able to find out what happened, but it’s entirely possible that Savini had his name taken off this little vampire flick, which may not have been necessary since it’s the best short here. Not that it’s good, but it sure as hell seems good in comparison. An initially frustrating visual style with missing frames and a dirty matte give the film an old-timey look – at least, as much of an old-timey look as you can get with digital video (i.e. none whatsoever) – which is used to tell the story of an old doctor getting a strange house call from a woman who thinks her son is a vampire. House Call is the only short to work successfully around its low, low budget by having such a talky storyline, but that also makes the film dependent on a cast that, sadly, isn’t up to the challenge. The troubled mother can’t seem to muster a southern accent, despite having lines that would only make sense coming from an individual of the ‘hillbilly’ persuasion, and the twist ending… isn’t one. It’s not truly awful, occasionally evoking a mediocre Twilight Zone episode, but it’s still pretty bad.
CRAVE Online Rating: 3/10
CRAVE Online Rating (Whole DVD): 2/10
Photos Courtesy of Millennium Entertainment