Friday, 20 March 2015


Recently I reviewed Tales of the Supernatural, a low budget horror anthology that, sadly, didn't do the job for me. However, it did inspire me to look at some of those wonderful portmanteau tales that have come before, the likes of Creepshow, Amicus’s Tales From The Crypt and the Ealing masterpiece that is Dead of Night.
After revisiting these classics I was (perhaps understandably) wary about watching another modern low-budget indie take on the sub-genre, but Dreadtime Stories has been on my review list for some time, so I finally took the plunge.
Would this restore my faith in the anthology format? Or would this one fall short too?
Read on...


Dir: Jacob Grim
Starring: James Johnson, Robert Paul, Tania S Monroy, Martha Sanchez, Laura Schmitt, Hank Vasquez, Jordan Bruster-Campo, Buddy Smith, Sal Hernandez, David Marin, Brianna Garcia, Tiffany Hinojosa, Eric Rodrigue, Autumn Caro, Brianna Elaine,  Lisa McGrew

SHORT SUMMARY: I’ll try not to spoil too much here but read on at your own risk.

Kirk (Johnson) is a college student who goes on a work experience placement at a local funeral home run by 'WWE's Paul Bearer'-like funeral director Hyker Churchyard (Paul). One of his first assignments is to inventory the belongings of a recently admitted corpse, that of the infamous Mr Ahriman. Ahriman was said to be involved in a series of diabolical occult practices and his body remained undiscovered for several days after his demise.

It is while checking the cadaver's pockets that Kirk discovers a mysterious leather-bound book. He's intrigued and swiftly stashes the book in his bag while nobody's watching.
That evening he heads home to a house party. As the evening goes on, the book finds its way out of his bag and into the hands of his various guests. They all take the time to read one of its twisted stories, each of which is described below.
HOME COOKING — A doting mother (Sanchez) prepares a very special meal for her husband and daughter, all set to a jaunty soundtrack.
FORGOTTEN — A driven and determined businesswoman (Schmitt) has a serious tragedy in her past… or does she?
HARVEST HOLLOW — Two labourers (Vasquez and Bruster-Campo) working on the edge of the woods hear the creepy local legend of a murderous scarecrow. At first they laugh it off as a ghost story, but then the night draws in…
USELESS — Two men (Smith and Hernandez) sit in a car and discuss the invention of toilet paper, reducing themselves to a giggling mess. But what is the true reason for their late night excursion?
WIT’S END — Despite not sharing her boyfriend Val’s (Marin) love of horror movies, Alyssa (Garcia) sends him off to a horror convention. However, that night she finds herself involved in a deadly game of cat and mouse with a masked psycho straight out of the slasher flicks she hates so much.
STAINED AFFECTION — Heather (Hinojosa) argues on the phone with her volatile and abusive boyfriend before telling him that the relationship is over, despite his fury. To help take her mind off it, Heather's room-mate suggests going out to let her hair down. However, soon the pair become a target for a mystery prowler. Is this her ex… or somebody even more twisted?
PUNISHMENT —  Gangster Alex (Rodrigue) has let his boss down and now it's time to face the consequences. However, the vicious beating he receives is nothing compared to the effects of a mysterious syringe his sadistic superior has ready for him.
EMPTY — Doctor Alison (Caro) has a near miss in her car when she comes across a mysterious girl walking in the road one rainy night. After heading to a nearby friend's home, Alison starts to realise that maybe her act of Samaritan-like kindness may have doomed them all.
DISTENSION — Homeless, penniless and pregnant Emily (Elaine) seeks aid at a nearby help centre but none is forthcoming. However, kindly Sarah (McGrew) takes pity on her, inviting Emily to stay in her spare room and taking care of her with a number of old family remedies. But why is Sarah helping? And at what cost?

THE BEST BITS (mild spoiler warning): I am pleased to say that, unlike a lot of supposedly 'scary' films released these days, Dreadtime Stories has some legitimately creepy moments.
The ominous knocking at the door in Harvest Hollow, the sandwich gag in Forgotten, Smiley and his paper heart, pretty much everything involving the girl in Empty... these are all proper horror moments. Much like Takashi Shimizu's original v-cinema Ju-On, well crafted scares and atmosphere can always overcome budgetary constraints and, at times, Grim shows a similar understanding of the macabre.
This is assured and controlled direction, not trying to reach beyond his means, nor playing it overly cautious and shying away from the big moments when they matter. This is extremely impressive.
It is also worth noting that each of the segments has a decidedly different feel. While none of them were out and out clunkers, I was especially impressed by Harvest Hallow, Wit's End, Empty and Distension, and I got a real kick out of Home Cooking. This latter story really reminded me of the short One Please, featuring a similar seemingly idyllic all-American family with a dark and disturbing twist. The juxtaposition with the jolly little theme tune and soft-focus warm home with the sudden cut to... something decidedly less comforting was performed wonderfully.
Of those other segments, Harvest Hallow was the only one that could have done with a little more fleshing out. I love a good spooky scarecrow flick (of which, sadly, there are far too few) and think that with a bit more space to breathe and a larger cast of victims, this could make a cool feature. It certainly did enough to keep me interested, so well done guys!
The other three had one thing in common, they managed to tell a full and proper story and didn't feel truncated or like an excerpt from a larger whole. I review a lot of shorts (and I've become a very big fan of the creative and talented filmmakers pushing boundaries with the format) and I can tell you that had I received Empty, Wit's End or Distension as stand alone short films, I would have written equally glowing reviews.
Of the three Empty is arguably the most simple, with a straightforward story and no real twists per say — instead it boasts a trio of top performances from Caro, Ronny Holiday as Charlie and Taylor Goldman as the creepy-as-Hell Girl and a fabulously oppressive gloomy atmosphere. Late night drives on isolated, rain-soaked roads may have become a genre cliche, but Empty shows there's still plenty of life left in the premise if it's done well.
More than anything Wit's End made me want to see what Grim could do with a full-length slasher flick. After some early scene-setting dialogue, once the segment settles into the cat and mouse stalking sequence it hits a real high. The tension is palpable, the scares brilliantly executed. The predictable twist-ending may dull the finish a little, but the journey is more than worthy enough to gain a thumbs up from this jaded reviewer.
Finally we get to possibly the best segment — Distension. Carried along by two absolutely fantastic performances by the sweetly vulnerable Elaine and the complex and nuanced work of McGrew, this has a Rosemary's Baby feel to it. Obviously it doesn't quite hit the lofty heights of Polanski's pregnant and in peril masterpiece, but it isn't far removed from modern day imitators such as Devil's Due. Aside from some cracking performances and suitably freaky visuals during the hallucinatory nightmare sequence, it also boasts a killer twist that I can't help but kick myself for failing to spot!
I think it's a real testament to Grim and his co-writer Sal Hernandez that they were able to encompass so many different themes and horror subjects — from werewolves to witchcraft to psycho clowns and give each segment a different feel.
Of course, it's not just the segments that are worth your time, the wraparound story is well-told too. This is the most obviously campy and funny part of the film, but it boasts some more excellent performances, not least from the excellent Elaine (in another role as Kirk's girlfriend from Hell), the lovely Ms Monroy and the extremely entertaining Paul. Monroy shows real promise in her role and I look forward to seeing more from her in the future. Paul is clearly having a hoot as Churchyard and you can’t help but get swept along by his gleefully OTT turn. If there is a volume 2 of Dreadtime Stories I very much hope that Paul's Hyker Churchyard returns as the Crypt Keeper-like host for proceedings.
I want to praise just how much the filmmakers have done with their micro budget. It's been estimated about $2000, with cast and crew volunteering their services to get the film made, but this is at as high a calibre as plenty of indies I've seen with significantly more funding. The effects are not too bad at all, the film doesn't look too shabby and, generally, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Well done to everybody over at STX Media.
Finally, Smiley. By god, he's horrible… more please!

THE WORST BITS (mild spoiler warning): There's not too much to pick at here. Perhaps the biggest issue I had was pacing. The film actually clocks in at a little overlong (1hr 45 is just a tad much for a genre flick like this) yet some of the segments seem to be a little rushed. This means some are cutback to overly simple linear stories (case in point, while Forgotten had plenty of atmosphere it was essentially just an excuse to include a creepy kid tale, and the complete lack of any explanation for the Useless section made it a bit of a head-scratcher). Sadly the ending was most badly affected by this hurried feeling and it meant that it lost some of its punch.

Perhaps the best way around this would have been to excise two or even three of the segments to give the others a little more room to breathe, instead including the excised few in the rumoured Volume 2 and giving them a little more time too. Ten story lines, while ambitious and pretty damn generous of Grim and Hernandez, is just two much to fit into a sub-two hour flick. Much like the second V/H/S movie, I hope the next film will give each story the necessary time to really crawl under the skin.
Also, while it's churlish to point out the places in which Dreadtime Stories doesn't exceed expectations, there are definitely a couple of lo-fi moments in there in which the effects work doesn't quite hit the target. Fortunately these are pretty rare and don't adversely affect enjoyment of the movie that often. One area in which it does become a problem is the uniformly dark nature of the flick. Unfortunately the lighting dips just a little below 'atmospheric' and into 'confusing' at times. Obviously, dark, bleak, shadowy grim settings are a big part of the genre, but you still need to be able to see exactly what's going on. There were a few points in which that became difficult. Luckily, this wasn't so regular that it stopped me from getting the gist of the plot, so it's not too bad.
Finally, I know I had lots of praise for the acting but, not everybody hit the same sterling standard as the awesome Elaine, Monroy, Paul, McGrew, Caro, Holiday, Goldman and Hernandez (him again!) as Smiley. This is probably due to the fact that they are onscreen with performers as good as those I've just listed, but unfortunately they come across as decidedly weaker than the aforementioned heavy-hitters.
Then again, perhaps I was spoiled by how great the best cast members were!

THE VERDICT: What a wonderful surprise Dreadtime Stories was — this is more like it! Overcoming its budgetary constraints with aplomb, this is a great anthology along the lines of Creepshow or Tales From The Darkside. With fun, frights and an unexpected level of finesse, the folks at STX Media should be well and truly proud of this effort and I have no reservations whatsoever in recommending it.

The film is currently touring festivals so be sure to check out STX's Facebook page to see when it'll be near you and to get info on any home release or sequel plans. Give them a Like while you're there too, I'm sure they'd appreciate it!

If you haven’t already, do please check out and Like the Hickey’s House of Horrors Facebook page, which you can find here. It gives you a nice quick link to any new posts on this blog, plus regular news updates from around the web. I check the Internet so you don’t have to! Alternatively, follow me on twitter: The House@HickeysHorrors

Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay.

No comments:

Post a Comment