Cult Video and Three A.M. Films have put together quite a package in the Vengeance of the Dead Lunar Edition DVD (distributed by Tempe Entertainment). This double-sided disk is full of special features, though the title film would be worth the price of the DVD alone.
Vengeance of the Dead has a simple, effective storyline. Eric (played with just the right amount of emotion by Michael Galvin) pays a visit to his grandfather (Mark Vollmers) in the small farming community of Harvest, Wisconsin. The visit goes from the mundane to the horrific after Eric discovers an old spoon half buried in the dirt outside his grandfather's farm. What follows involves ghosts, murders committed by a sleepwalking avenger, grave desecration, and a love story that verges on disturbing.
This is a horror movie that recalls an era when fright flicks relied more on atmosphere than on special effects. Writers Don Adams and Harry James Picardi (both of whom also directed the film and are the heart of Three A.M. Films) produce scenes that are truly chilling and twisted, without ever seeming forced or hackneyed. In one particularly frightening moment, a ghost of a little girl is seen playing on a swing. She materializes in a bedroom in the middle of the night, providing one of the creepiest, most startling entrances ever to appear in a horror film. That scene, which exemplifies the type of scare the directors are going for, recalls what Stanley Kubrick created in his version of The Shining. And like The Shining, Vengeance of the Dead is a ghost movie with a twist.
Adams and Picardi take the common ghost story and skillfully spin it in a new direction. The film explores an intriguing aspect of possession. What if ghosts manipulated the living in order to enact revenge on the living? The writers take great delight in presenting the answer in a novel style that would never have survived the conformist leanings of a major studio. Their inferno of originality and eerie imagination, however, shines through even more on the other film on the DVD. The film is called Schrek, and it is quite the tale.
Schrek was Adams and Picardi's first venture into film. It was made for $400 and shot with a camcorder. Furthermore, the actors never showed up for filming, so the three person crew became the cast. That sort of thing would seem to doom a production, but Adams and Picardi, either from an amateur understanding of the situation or from full knowledge that they had an incredible story on hand, pressed on. What they created is, in many respects, superior to Vengeance.
Schrek concerns a Nazi serial killer who is obsessed with the original Nosferatu film and the idea of immortality. As explained in a newscast/tourist video (intentionally made to look cheesy), Schrek was eventually killed by the police, who were led to his house after receiving a mysterious phone call. Decades after the killer's demise, a group of Schrek-worshipping teenagers attempt to resurrect their hero via a seance. What follows are some of the most ingenious death scenes and plot twists ever presented in a low budget film. What is astonishing is not that this film was made despite its many production problems, it is the fact that it was made by teenagers and shows more originality than almost any recent Hollywood horror film. It makes one wonder how Adams and Picardi would remake this film now that they have more experience under their belts (and hopefully more money in their pockets).
Other features on this spectacular DVD include a trailer for WarWolf, which looks like a new take on the werewolf genre, and segments that showcase the making of WarWolf, Schrek, and a horror anthology called Red Eyes. Also included are a few Wisconsin newscasts covering Three A.M. Films and plenty of commentary that centers on the love of making low budget horror films and the problems involved with such a thankless effort. The commentary also explains the common artistic vision between the two main features, which are as different as two horror movies could be.
Vengeance of the Dead is a moody fright fest that deserves to be sought out by horror fans. The fact that it is light on gore and heavy on atmosphere should also attract viewers who are often put off by the bloodier aspects of the genre. For those who crave more splatter, Schrek will easily provide the necessary fix. And though that film isn't nearly as polished as the title feature, I ultimately found it more entertaining, as it exemplifies the spirit of low budget films. The contrast between the latest film, Vengeance of the Dead, and the first Three A.M. Films production, Schrek, is huge, but it makes it easy to see just how Picardi and Adams have matured as directors while maintaining their drive to make entertaining films on a tight budget.
Maybe Hollywood will someday abandon the formula horror film and try something daring and bold. (This seems unlikely for the forseeable future, considering the problems Rob Zombie's House of 1,000 Corpses has been having. The movie was dropped by its studio for being too "disturbing." It is still having difficulty finding a distributor.) If it does, Three A.M. Films is one of the production companies that should be given some attention. Until that day comes, however, true horror fans will have to search their local video stores for movies that can deliver the goods that Hollywood refuses to touch, and Vengeance of the Dead is an excellent place to start.
Doug Brunell is a freelance writer whose work can be found in magazines such as Tattoo Savage and Pagan Palaver. He also writes book reviews for Fearlessbooks.com and has a regular column titled "Violence Fetish" in the entertainment paper Panache (a weekly newsletter version of the column is available; email Doug for information). He currently lives in Eureka, California and fears that when the end of the world comes, he'll be asleep.
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