Friday, August 20, 2010

DVD Reviews: DARKNESS (2009) and BRAINJACKED (2009)

Here are a couple of new releases from Breaking Glass Pictures, a distribution company I admit I'd never heard of before they contacted me, asking me to review some of their upcoming horror offerings. I've been in the horror blogging biz long enough to know that it's often dangerous to take screeners from strangers; every now and then you get something interesting and worthwhile, but more often you get something...well, somewhat less so. Still, I wouldn't have got where I am today without being willing to thrust my hand in the bucket and see if I can dig out a pearl, no matter how many times I come up with a fistful of chitterlings instead. So, knowing the risks, I accepted their generous offer.

In this case I'm very glad I did, because if the two movies they sent for initial consideration are any indication, I'm going to want to keep an eye on their future releases. And that means, of course, that you should too.

We start with Darkness (2009, dir. Juraj Herz), a moody, atmospheric ghost story from the Czech Republic. (It was originally titled T.M.A., which I guess means something to Czech readers?) Successful musician Marek (Ivan Franek) is taking some time off from his rock n' roll, clubbing lifestyle to return to his rural home village and focus on expressing himself through painting. Marek's parents were killed in a car crash more than 20 years earlier, when Marek was 7 years old, and he hasn't been back to the family estate since. Apparently no one has, as the place looks like the Haunted Mansion ride at Eastern Bloc EuroDisney, all cobwebs and thick layers of dust and icky rusty water gurgling from the pipes. Wanting to get his head together and separate himself from the rat race, Marek has purposefully left his cell phone charger in the city, which you just KNOW is going to turn out to be a wise decision on his part.

Marek: the Justin Beiber of the Czech Republic

Marek gets down to producing paintings--VERY prolifically, I must say, soon filling the decrepit house with eerie, expressionistic nudes--and soon begins to unearth repressed memories from his childhood, in which he and his now-institutionalized sister performed strange rituals in the basement of their house, which just so happened to have been a Nazi hopsital in WWII where experiments were conducted on Downs Syndrome children. As he reacquaints himself with childhood sweetheart, foxy redhead Lucie (Lenka Krobotová), he begins hearing and seeing strange things around the house--radios come on by themselves, always playing a children's choir singing the Czech version of "Frere Jacques," and ghostly figures come in and out of the darkness. He learns disturbing things from the town archivist about the house's history, and when his sister escapes the institution, it all comes to a head in a creepy climax.

I'm being purposefully vague on the details here, since Darkness is one of those movies that rewards curiosity and lack of foreknowledge. Herz directs the film with an assured talent, giving the audience enough to keep them interested without spoon-feeding like the inevitable American remake is sure to do. The cinematography is just gorgeous, with deep shadows and sparsely used filters evoking a very creepy tone. The acting is great too, particularly from the two leads, but also from Lucie's father and the town archivist who may or may not have a darker history of his own. The ghost story elements are handled expertly, and while the threads of the story and subplots down't always mesh exactly, the end result is still satisfying. It's also a very sexy movie, with a few well-shot sex scenes and lots of nudity (bonus points for not being of the anorexic, Hollywood Barbie variety--by necessity, no doubt, but still, Vicar likes), so really it left me wanting for nothing.

Lenka Krobotová, trapped relaxing in the Vicarage garden yesterday

In short, if you like creepy, well-made ghost stories that are beautiful to look at and feature Czech rock music and lots of Czech sex, then you should definitely "czech" Darkness out! (HAW!)

On the other side of the Mad Movie coin we have Brainjacked (2009, written and directed by Andrew Allan). The flick follows the adventures of Tristan (Chris Jackson), a young man from a supremely dysfunctional family (as in, we first meet him as he awakes to find his stepfather throwing a gangbang/drug party, with Tristan's mom as the main entertainment) who is also plagued by debilitating migraines. Running away from home, Tristan falls in with angelic pixie-girl Laney (Somali Rose), who gets him into the halfway home of philanthropic neurosurgeon Dr. Karas (Rod Grant) where she and a bevy of other runaways/former migraine sufferers have found a kind of communal paradise. The reason for the "former" qualifier is Dr. Karas's unique, 100% effective treatment for migraines: the ancient art of trepanation!

It should come as no surprise that Dr. Karas is a Mad Scientist of the first order, and has some dark ulterior motives behind his seemingly selfless procedures. After a few weeks of happiness at the commune (and a "falling-in-love-with-Laney" montage, naturally), Tristan discovers that Dr. Karas has done more than cure their headaches--he's implanted a mind control device in each perforated cranium, turning his devoted patients into mindless automatons he plans to use to infiltrate the highest echelons of society for the usual Mad Scientist reasons. After a fight with some of Karas's grotesque surgical "failures" knocks the control unit out of Tristan's skull, he liberates Laney and together they try to expose the bad doctor. But Karas's influence goes further than they think, as everyone they meet seems to have that same tell-tale forehead scar...

This movie has much more of a shot-on-video, indie-production feel than the glossy, high-budget-looking Darkness, but it overcomes that with good low-budget set design, some interesting lighting, and a mad science storyline wild enough to keep you interested. The performances range from amateur to pretty great. Johnson as Tristan is fairly bland and deadpan, though he pulls off the migraine pain believably. Christopher Sarlls, who plays rebellious former patient Zane, delivers all his lines as if instructing you on the pronunciation of his own last name, in a Wolverine/Batman tough-guy snarl that is so overblown it's hard not to make fun of (so don't try). Rose does better as Laney, and is a feast for the eyes in her white mini-dress, matching stockings, and intricately braided coiffure.

My stars! No garters!

But the best by far is Rod Grant as Dr. Karas, who plays the mad scientist with an eeevil glee that's contagious. Like all the best mad scientist portrayers, Grant really makes you feel his character's unflinching faith in his own mad schemes, and delivers the entertainingly outrageous pseudoscience with admirable conviction.

Example: "I'm going to drill a hole in his skull to alleviate pressure and recalibrate cranial blood volume....You see, sometimes our brains grow too large for our skulls...this drill removes more than bone removes the barriers of the mind...and once you are free, nothing can stop you from your destiny!"

Sounds good to me! Also, kudos to writer/director Allan for going the extra mile and giving Karas a Lionel Atwill-worthy artificial hand, which he can snap off and switch with a cranial drill attachment to perform his life-changing trepanations! Something we don't see enough of, in my opinion. More kudos for using practical effects for the movie's numerous and subtantial gore scenes, some of which I admit had me cringing in my seat. In fact, I'd say Brainjacked is one of the better low-budget indie horror flicks I've seen in a while, thanks to an unusual, creative premise, a mostly well-thought-out and delivered narrative, and Mad Movie style to spare.

"Is it safe?"

Both Darkness and Brainjacked are scheduled to street in mid-September 2010. The screeners I received had no extras to speak of (not even chapter selection), but I'm guessing (hoping?) this was merely for the review copies and not the final retail versions. The picture looked great on both, though, and the films themselves are worth seeing, so keep an eye on Breaking Glass Pictures' online store if either piques your interest. 2.5 thumbs for both flicks, and the Vicarious stamp of approval.


The Duke of DVD said...

Brilliant job as always, dearest Vicar. You gave me these when we last dined in my opulent dining hall, the smoke from your vintage, deer-horn pipe swirling around our heads like the exhalations from an angry god. At first, I looked askance at the DVD offerings, like a boar wrinkling its nose at a bit of rotten truffle, but now I know I'm in a for a treat indeed.

Bravo, sir!

Stuart Hample said...

Hi from Czech republic. I can explain that mysterious title of the first film. Word "Tma" in czech actually means "darkness". But producers of the film were originally planned name it "The Mysterious Adress" for English-speaking countries, so "T.M.A." was elected as understandable for both, Czech and non-Czech viewers. Why it stands after changing the english title, don´t know. :-)

BTW, T.M.A. has very bad reviews here in Czech republic, because Juraj Herz, director of the film, made much better movies earlier. Especially Spalovač mrtvol (1968) and Morgiana (1972) are really great ones.

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