Dave Wain’s essential breakdown of this week’s cavalcade of straight-to-disc treats. Step inside the DTV Junkyard…
As Captain Willard once said “I love the smell of DTV on a Monday morning “ – or words to that effect. Does anyone have a purchasing process for picking up straight to video schlock? You know, like a checklist of things that will determine whether or not you shell out on that appealingly packaged piece of low-budget horror? Let’s take a look at this weeks’ lead title – CURSE OF THE WITCHING TREE – to help us dissect this nerd-like procedure. Artwork is key, and with a predominantly yellow-tinted sleeve design, it certainly stands out from the lifeless grey and black clones that dominate the box-art for the majority of DTV fare. Next up, it’s a label check. We all know our favourites, and we can all recognise a badge of quality; your Metrodome, your Monster, your Second Sight. Curse of the Witching Tree comes out on 4DigitalMedia – a teeth-clenching, sharp intake of breath type label. As past endeavours have taught us it could go either way; from the woeful The Coven, to the quite marvellous Theatre of Fear, it’s the home entertainment equivalent of tossing a coin. Do cover quotes matter? Not really. Having been asked to supply a quote by the occasional film company without having seen the movie, it’s safe to say they’re often a cynical marketing tool to dupe the consumer into thinking they’re buying Citizen Kane. In the murky world of DTV, the term caveat emptor has never been more fitting.
I digress; In Curse of the Witching Tree, an innocent woman, hanged as a witch for allegedly murdering her son, curses the tree from which she is hung and all the children who play around it. As the effects of this act of revenge echo throughout the years and centuries, restless spirits haunt the house where the bodies of the cursed children have been buried. When a family moves into their new home, they begin to uncover the terrible truth behind the witching tree and the murdered children upon which they unknowingly sleep.
The bubonic plague killed two hundred million people in Europe with subsequent consequences for the number of recorded cases of witchcraft, so says the opening gambit. It’s a slice of historical context that offers a promising start for James Crow’s film, albeit one in which it sadly fails to deliver upon. Sarah Rose Denton gives an excellent performance as Rose here; the mother of two children who has the pain of having a coma-stricken husband lying in hospital etched upon her face, but by casting the twenty-seven year old Lucy Clarvis as her daughter (Denton is thirty-one) it really affects the plausibility of the on-screen dynamic.
A few other missteps in tone and post-production stick in the throat as well; a wisecracking bully whose crass one-liners stifle the tension in one key sequence, while some of the ADR in the occasional exterior shot is glaringly ham-fisted. These latter issues are all forgivable, and I’m aware that I’m probably over-zealous in my criticism of a debut feature shot on a shoe-string. Nevertheless, Curse of the Witching Tree simply fails to ignite the glowing adulation that went the way of many other recent British scare-fests. In its desire to tip its hat towards classic titles from a bygone era, it feels less cinematic with a vibe more akin to dated episodic television.
Where have all the good men gone and where are all the God’s? Where’s the street-wise Hercules to fight the rising odds? You know it – we need a hero, but what kind of DTV landscape is this with such a dearth of high-quality action pictures? In 2015, it seems all we have are shockingly mediocre flicks with a sixty-three year old leading man with spray on hair, and woefully re-mastered classics that serve only as an insult to our collecting sensibilities. Back in the VHS heyday of the early nineties, home entertainment was dominated by high quality action. 1991 alone saw Kickboxer 2, Showdown in Little Tokyo, Ricochet, Out for Justice, Stone Cold, Samurai Cop, Guyver, Wedlock, The Hitman, One Good Cop, Bloodmatch and McBain; a mere handful of the plethora of high-octane goodness that that year produced. I don’t want to sound like the guy who comes across as woefully out of touch with the lamentable “they don’t make films like they used to” retort, but in a post-Expendables world I really did expect a renaissance.
All of which misty-eyed reminiscing brings me to FALCON RISING, the action equivalent of an ice cold Newcastle Brown ale buried deep in the Mohave. John ‘Falcon’ Chapman (Michael Jai White) is an ex-marine plagued with a terrible secret that consumes him with guilt. Teetering on the brink of self-destruction he learns that his sister, Cindy (Laila Ali), has been brutally beaten while in Brazil. Traveling down to South America in the hope of hunting down her attackers, he discovers an underground world of drugs, prostitution and police corruption.
Beginning with that comforting action movie cliché of the former soldier foiling the convenience store robbery with requisite ease, Falcon Rising shows it has no intention of reinventing the wheel. In its contentment though, it delivers all you would expect and more. Director Ernie Barbarash called the shots on two of the better JCVD films in recent years, 6 Bullets and Assassination Games, while lead actor White showed his action prowess in the outstanding Blood and Bone. It may not be in the pantheon of the all-time greats, but Falcon Rising does serve as a much needed injection of life into a genre that’s on the verge of becoming extinct.
…and finally. Dolph Lundgren and Scott Adkins battle a prehistoric beast? No, it’s not the contract negotiations for The Expendables 4, nor is it evidence of two men’s careers sinking down to SyFy crud. It is in fact a cheese-tastic but oddly enjoyable China-shot creature feature from Welsh director Eric Styles called LEGENDARY. Adkins plays Dr. Travis Preston, a dedicated Cryptozoologist who travels to the Far East to capture a Cryptid which is wreaking havoc in a small village. However, at the same time his arch enemy and ruthless competitor Harker (Lundgren)is desperate to prove he’s the best there is, and out-do Travis any way he can.
Full of flaws, wonky dialogue and two lead actors who are obviously about to place vitriolic calls with their respective agents, Legendary does not come with the Junkyard stamp of approval. However, if you have an insatiable urge to quench a desire for ropey monster movies, then you could do far worse than this piece of hokum. With lush cinematography from Shu Yang, who shot the drool-worthy Chen Kaige film Sacrifice, there is aspects of it to admire… just don’t tell your friends you liked it.