Horrors At Home: “Assault on Precinct 13”, “Night of the Comet” and “Just Before Dawn”

Horror has always been a pretty big business, especially on home video. So, in the advent of Blu-Ray, DVD, and Digital Download, which titles are worth seeing? Which ones are worth avoiding? Well, read on to see the best, worst, and most “eh, whatever” titles in genre films available now.

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Assault on Precinct 13 (Shout! Factory) was a movie of firsts for director John Carpenter. Whilst it wasn’t his first movie (that would be the Sci-Fi dark comedy “Dark Star”), it would be his first film out of film school, as well as his first masterpiece and the first time he really showed what he is capable of.

When you get down to it, the plot is pretty simple, and uses a formula (an group of people isolated inside of a building-here an L.A. police station that’s about to be closed-while murderous forces-here some pretty ruthless killers that at one point kill a child-threaten them from the outside) that he would later use for “Prince of Darkness” and, to a far lesser extent “Ghosts of Mars.” However, it’s what he does with his low budget “Rio Bravo” knock off/homage that makes it work so well. The whole thing at times feels like something such as “Night of the Living Dead” without zombies, and the fact that those outside of the building don’t seem to have much of a motive-they are just evil, and that’s it-helps add to the atmosphere. Its also a movie of another first for Carpenter, in that it’s the first film of his that uses tension to it’s maximum effect, though it manages to occasionally liven things up with some great dialogue (especially from Darwin Joston, who steals the show as Napoleon) and white knuckle action and strong performances throughout. Really, anyone who loves great action movies from the 70’s-or great movies from that decade in general-owes it to themselves to get this sucker.

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“Daddy would’ve gotten us Uzi’s” is one of the many great lines to be featured in The Night of the Comet (Shout! Factory), Thom (“Gross Anatomy” and “Captain Ron”) Eberhartd’s breezy horror/comedy that pits two valley girl sisters (Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney) against an apocalypse brought forth by a comet, leaving them to fend for themselves. On the plus side, they finally have the mall to themselves, and there’s a hunky survivor (Robert Beltram) around to help them. On the minus side, there’s some scientists (including Roger Corman vet and former dancer at Andy Warhol’s factory Mary Warnov) that want their blood, as they are slowly rotting away and need it to survive. Oh, and the blood thirsty zombies.

As far as horror/comedy hybrids of the 80’s, NOTC is a pretty light affair that largely doesn’t bother with black humor, and instead opts for a lighter tone. Thankfully, this works wonders for the most part, as director Eberhartd (who also wrote it) keeps things moving along at a brisk pace, and offers enough great one liners, visual gags and plenty of energy to the proceedings. It also helps that you can’t help but love the protagonists from the get-go. Sure, they’re valley girls, but they can be pretty resourceful (and they are pretty good with machine guns too), and Stewart and Maroney are clearly having the time of their lives playing them, which adds to the endless charm that exudes from the proceedings. Sure to please both horror fans and lovers of 80’s comedies, NOTC is a hoot from beginning to end.

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With the 80’s slasher boom in full effect, director Jeff Lieberman (“Squirm” and “Blue Sunshine”) gave the world Just Before Dawn (Code Red). The premise, like most slasher movies, isn’t anything to write home about: five kids (one of which is played by Jack Lemmon’s son Chris) go camping in the woods in spit of the protestations of the local forest ranger (George Kennedy in the “I’m mostly doing B-Movies” part of his career). However, it turns out they should have heeded the warnings of the ranger, as well as the weird backwoods families, as their are two twin brothers with murder in their mind, and well, what wouldn’t be a better target than a bunch of dumb, horny teenagers?

As I said, the plot is nothing to write home about. What is worth writing home about is what Lieberman actually does with the material at hand. Instead of relying on the same old hack n’ slash found in so many slasher movies (not to say this doesn’t have any), the director instead opts on an atmosphere of dread and backwoods weirdness, best exemplified by a scene in which the kids go swimming and-well, I don’t want to spoil it, nor do I want to spoil the ending, which has one of the best “final girl” moments in slasher movie history. Oh, and the ambient score by Brad Fiedel (who went on to score “The Terminator” and it’s sequel) is pretty great, adding to the creeping mood of the film and at times sounds like it could have come from Tangerine Dream or Klaus Schulze.

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You wouldn’t think that a movie from the guys behind “Reno 911” would be reviewed here, but Hell Baby (Millennium) fits the criteria. Here, an expecting couple (Leslie Bibb and Rob Corddry) decide to move into a house that has a bit of a history of murder and demonic activities-oh, and one of their neighbors (Keegan-Michael Key) keeps going in to their house whenever he wants to. Well, the wife starts exhibiting weird behavior like speaking in a Satanic sounding voice and drinking paint thinner. Who can stop this? Why, it could be two exorcists from the Vatican (Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant) who have come to stop what could be the birth of the Antichrist.

So, does “Hell Baby” work? Well, I’d say about 55% of the time. On the plus time, it’s a satire of supernatural horror that avoids the predictable “Scary Movie”/Friedberg and Seltzer style parody by dropping tired pop culture references and actually bothering to tell some jokes that work…well, they work half of the time, but that’s better than rarely. It also helps that most of the cast is game, and their performances (especially of Key, who steals the show) are largely spot on and pretty damn funny. On the minus side, there are random subplots (like a naked old woman) and random asides (a strip club) that either aren’t funny, feel like they are thrown in for no reason or are a missed opportunity (like a rather wasted cameo from Michael Ian Black) that should have been left on the cutting room floor or more thought out. Believe me, when the movie works, it’s really funny, but when the jokes bomb, they bomb really badly. As a whole, it should make for a decent Netflix streaming, but I can’t help but wish that it had been better.

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All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (Anchor Bay) starts with a tragedy at a pool party, and ends with many dead in the middle of nowhere. It also tells the tale of a high school girl (Amber Heard) who is lusted after by many a high school boy, and agrees to spend some time with her supposed friends at a weekend getaway. However, someone is out there with murderous intentions, revenge and Mandy on their mind. Someone who is connected to her past-and even there, things aren’t what they seem…

ATBLML is interesting especially when you look at it’s background. It was the directorial debut of Jonathan Levine (who went on to direct “50/50” and “Warm Bodies”), was filmed in 2005 and debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006 to largely rave reviews. Then…it just sat their, as one of it’s distributors went out of business, it jumped from festival to festival, and was picked up by the Weinstein Company, who let it sit on the shelf for a long time and then just dumped it in a few theaters and on demand without much fanfare.

So, is it good? Well, like “Hell Baby”, it works about 55% of the time. On the plus side, the acting is largely strong (Whitney Able in particular stands out as a mean girl who has some personal demons and also lusts for Mandy) and Levine manages to create a weird, almost dreamlike atmosphere that at times is akin to a horror film from the 70’s or 80’s. Also, he deserves points for not having to resort to the same over the top gore gags and trying to create an iconic slasher villain (yes, that was a knock at “Hatchet.”) On the minus side, the film really starts to fall apart a little over the halfway point, in which we find out the identity of the killer. Granted, that wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t lead to a rather confusing twist at the end, which leads to an even more confusing and unnecessary twist. The twists as a whole derail what was a pretty solid horror movie, and instead reveals a flawed but at times fascinating little movie that’s not a total disaster, but really didn’t need to add those pesky plot twists to sour the whole mood.

Next Time: I’d hate to break it to you, but…”You’re Next” 

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