Thursday, February 25, 2016

Reviews: Double Killer Party Films: Mansion of Blood; Death’s Door

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2016
Images from the Internet

So, the reason I put these two reviews together is that they both deal with getting invitations to deadly parties at mansions, with supernaturally charged results. They also have prologue-stories from quite a time ago, the first is 1925 and the second 1931, respectively.

Mansion of Blood
Directed by Michael Donahue
Tom Cat Films / Covina Hills Pictures / Elusive Entertainment
99 minutes, 2013 / 2015

Stand-up comic Robert Klein used to have a routine dealing with a fake commercial where you could purchase every record that was ever recorded [HERE]. Never mind lions and tigers and bears, for this flick it’s zombies and vampires and demons and werewolves and serial killers and werewolves and ghosts and…

If there is a subgenre you like, you’re sure to find it here in a throw a dart at a board topic. Michael Donahue does two things to excess in the film. One is the genre mashup, and the other is the cameo parade; but more on the latter later.

There’s a party going on at the mysterious Mayhew Mansion, now owned by a sleazy businessman who has a mysterious and cantankerous caretaker (Gary “Buddy Holly” Busey). It’s being catered by possibly the only sane character in the cast (Robert Picardo, the holographic doctor from Star Trek: Voyager) and his nutzoid wife (Bronx-born Lorainne Ziff).

There is going to be a full moon eclipse, which is the reason for the joyous gathering – for most – and strange things are afoot when a late-20s high school senior (you know what I mean) witch-in-the-literal-sense brings back her dead ex-boytoy to see if he had bought a lottery ticket before he died. Yes, if you’re wondering, this is a comedy.

I must say, much of the writing is goofy-smart, with intentionally painful dialog (and acting) such as, “People are dropping like flies, and one by one they’re being murdered…” It is not, however, as just plain bad as are most spoofs, such as the Teen Movie / Scary Movie (well, at least after the first one, which was decent) releases – you know, like Vampires Suck (2010); it’s also not, however, brilliant either. Thankfully, it is somewhat enjoyable.

Let me show my hand by saying the negative thing first, and then go on to the positives from there: there is just too much happening. Employing practically no narrative, it is a bunch of set pieces that seem to be randomly stitched together in a way where it will jump from Scene 1 to Scene 2 to Scene 3 to Scene 2 to Scene 3 to Scene 1 to Scene 4 to… You get my drift? The good thing about this is that it’s hard to predict what is going to happen because most of it seems so arbitrary. There are some exceptions though, such as obviously the mummy (nice make-up job, by the way) is going to come to life – but the conclusion of that bit is pretty enjoyable.

Like any mashup, there is bound to be something to make any genre fan happy. At first, honestly, I didn’t get what was going on, thinking that the director couldn’t make up his mind on a genus, but as it continued I had a mixture of “Aaaaaah” and “Duhhhhh,” and was kind of relieved that there was a point-not-to-have-a-point to the whole thing.

There are certainly more characters than you can shake a stick at, and most of them are pretty superfluous other than fodder for whatever mayhem at the Mayhew residence turns up (oh, and Busey does the Mayhem/Mayhew joke in the film, so it’s not my pun, sorry to say).

Along with Busey and Picardo is a host of names that either may be famous one day, or were in their time. For example, there is Terry Moore, who was not only incredibly gorgeous back when, e.g., have you seen her in Mighty Joe Young (1949)?, but was also mysteriously married to Charles Foster Kan…I mean William Randolph Hearst. Also in the film, at 102, is Carla Laemmle (d. 2014), who is the daughter of Carl Laemmle (d. 1939; if you have to ask who that is, you need to get some horror history background lessons, son).

There are many others with familiar last names who are or could be related to bigger fish, such as Calista Carradine, John Barrymore III, and Katherin Kovin-Pacino (Al’s fourth step-mom).

While I realize this is a spoof, the cliché thing to do, in my opinion, is ham acting. To be the most effective, I believe, is to have every actor do their A-game work, and then have all the goofy things go off around them and have them act like it’s the best script – play against the joke rather than be part it. Now that is powerful and much more effective. Part of the reason gritty shows like Prime Suspect (1991-2006) worked so well is because the norm was on the level of an Agatha Christie slow burner (“Oh, look, someone’s killed Bunny.” “Better put the kettle on and ring the coppers.” “Right-o.”), and it was the juxtaposition that helped make it stand out so firmly.

There is some topless scenes full of inflated boobs (one of the more successful jokes constitutes around this) seemingly bunched together in the center of the story. There is also some decent gore, though arguably not enough for the action.

Another potential drawback to a film with this multitude of cast is that there is not much screen time for any particular one of them, so the chance of any kind of compassion or empathy, even for a sendup comedy – is lost to the flashiness and the skit. It becomes a bit overambitious in its cheesiness, and could lose some viewers that way. Odds are, though, most won’t care and will enjoy the strangeness.

Mainly, I found the film enjoyable. Perhaps not a stream of “badda-boom” jokes, but more on a subtle level that will have you saying, “Oh, I know that reference.” It reminded me of the old Carry On films, with camp leading the way.

Death’s Door (aka The Trap Door)
Written and directed by Kennedy Goldsby
Leomark Studios / Hi Point Studios / Goodness Media
92 minutes, 2011 / 2015

After the prologue, we meet a bunch of overage teens (sound familiar?) who get a mysterious and anonymous invitation to attend a party at a maudlin mansion (supposedly filmed at an actual haunted one). This is a device that, if I remember correctly, was first used by Agatha Christie in And Then There Were None (aka Ten Little Indians or by an even more racist title) in 1939. Since then, it’s been a common trope used to the point of cliché. Hell, there was even a porn version in 1985 called Ten Little Maidens.

Most of the dozen or so kids are nothing short of stereotypes of obnoxious characters, such as the pretty mean girl with a Kristen Bell look (who keeps ending words with that truly annoying “ah” sound, e.g., “no-wah; I don’t want to-wah; Why-yah”), the virgin guy with Harry Styles hair on steroids, the jocks, the chestbeating morons, the “good girl” (a Tara Reid clone), some Latinas and the solo cool Black guy (who, by the way, is also a macho cliché).

Lots of windows...
When they get into the mansion, the doors lock, and they naturally panic and turn on each other. What, no one ever heard to throwing something out a window? These guys obviously don’t give a damn about anything, so that they don’t trash the place at the very least – never mind pounding through doors – doesn’t feel honest for whom these knuckleheads are. How dumb you ask? My favorite line is from the mean girl who says, “I got nothing [sic] against Kendra, I just don’t like that bitch.”

When doors finally do get open occasionally here and there, they open to other rooms that weren’t there before, a device used before more successfully in the film Grave Encounters (2011); similar to that other film, time becomes questionable. There is even a pinching from The Wizard of Gore (1970) and The Wizard of Oz (1939; i.e., seeing events in an hourglass). But, we all know there is bound to be a reason why they are all at the house, and we have to wait until the end until we find out. Unfortunately, even that’s a cop out. And don’t get me started on the one-sided, non-yellowed newspaper clips from 1931, if I really wanted to get picky (you can make two-sided print-out, y’know).

Also inhabiting the house are three ghosts. There is a magician (character actor Obba Babatundé) who died tragically in the prologue and doesn’t do much else, his unfaithful wife who does even less, and a huge black servant with a burned face (played gloweringly by ex-footballer Tommy “Tiny” Lister. He’s the best thing about the film, and the only ghost we see actually physically interact with the kids.

As for most of the rest of the cast, they’re kind of bland characters. Some of the acting is fine, but it’s either so overwrought or underplayed, mixed with highly questionable storytelling and editing, that I kept waiting for someone to start shouting “Game over, maaan! Game over!” in that Dana Carvey voice imitating the guy in Aliens (1986). And yet, even with all the shenanigans going on, hook-ups continue to happen. Whaaaa? During one of the get-togethers, the indoor curtains are strongly blowing in a wind, so does that mean a window is open? Again, throw something the fuck out the window and get out. If someone tried and the windows wouldn’t crack, that would be something, but the writing is just not that great, so no one does. It tells a lot about the film’s zeitgeist.

Some of the gore effects look pretty good, though flashed more than shown (thank goodness for freezeframe). There is not enough of it, however, to balance the dearth of a story. As for nudity, even with the few sex scenes, it’s scarce.

The extras are a music video and a 7-minute “Behind the Scenes” where some cast and crew (including the director) discuss just how creepy it was to be in the house, and how some saw what they think was a ghost or two. Sadly, it was the best part of the DVD.

If it sounds like I’m being hard on the film, well, yes, I am. I love a ghost story more than a slasher film, but this was underwritten, overacted, overedited and left with too many holes. Bummed me out, because I wanted to really like this.


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