Dave Wain’s essential breakdown of this week’s cavalcade of straight-to-disc treats. Step inside the DTV Junkyard…

Without wishing to blow the Junkyard’s trumpet, it’s pleasing to think of this place as a kind of indefatigable champion of the neglected. It’s home to the genre orphans who are too poor to lick the collective PR asses of the big boys, and who by not issuing screeners are simply ignored, as the majority of bloggers seem too cheap to actually spend some money on the industry they claim to love so much.

The three DTV-J films this week belong firmly in the bracket of low-grade B-movie entertainment, and with an average IMDb rating of 3.2 between them, they’re hardly likely to dominate many column inches. The phrase ‘guilty pleasure’ is probably an appropriate one, but then the use of that term tends to elicit a nails-down-a-chalkboard reaction from me. Why guilty? What’s there to be guilty about? An insatiable appetite for undemanding, often incomprehensible schlock, with the occasional – albeit negligible – redeeming feature, is nothing to feel remorseful for. Embrace your inner crud-cosseting!

Another year, and there are continued signs that Andrew Jones company, North Bank Entertainment, seems to be solidifying its stability within the UK home entertainment industry. The eagle eyed among you will have spotted a few extra producers his recent movies. More fingers in the Bara Brith, or just a few more investors? None of the above it seems, when Jones spoke to me to clarify this development. “They’re basically just a thank you, especially with regard to the 4Digital Media people. I really appreciate their continued distribution of my films”. Jones was also quick to point out that after ten films, it’s still him calling the shots; “I’m the only one to blame for the creative decisions! I write, shoot and edit each film just how I want to”.

So, with THE EXORCISM OF ANNA ECKLUND, there’s only one person to lambast! I jest, as in all honesty you have to wonder if Jones’ films are impervious to criticism. Canny artwork, a low price point, and phenomenal supermarket exposure – not to mention no advance reviews – means that his films are pretty much guaranteed to rack up a certain number of sales. His newbie will be no exception, and I have to say it continues Jones’ consistent run of well shot, nicely scored and genuinely well produced features.

Anna Ecklund (Tiffany Ceri), once a mild mannered churchgoer, is now prone to bouts of violent rage with a particular anger towards religious imagery. Desperate to find a cure for her disturbing behaviour, Anna’s family call on doctors and psychiatrists to provide a diagnosis, but when no rational explanation can be found, local priest Father Riesinger (Jeff Raggett) teams up with Vatican investigator Father Lamont (Lee Bane) to evaluate the case.

I walked into The Exorcism of Anna Ecklund with a genuine sense of weary expectation. I know exorcism-themed films are great sellers, but to hardcore horror folk such as us Hamsters, it’s all getting a little bit repetitive. Happily though, Jones doesn’t stick to the ubiquitous exorcism movie template. It’s a simple storyline effectively told, especially with regard to the relationship between Riesinger and Lamont. Granted, their dialogue isn’t going to keep William Peter Blatty awake at night, but it’s an important aspect to this short feature, and it’s deftly done.  Considering the budgetary constraints, the actual exorcism scene will likely draw a collective sneer of disdain from the box-office-bred masses, but – all things considered – I think it’s a triumph. With a lush red tint that permeates the scene, and some handy foley work to boot, it’s a definite highlight in a film that succeeds in quashing those pre-empted reservations about YET ANOTHER exorcism movie.

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While I’m on the subject of low budget auteurs, who seem to crank out feature films with the same frequency that most of us would mow the lawn, here’s Rene Perez! Bearing a frighteningly similar resume to Mr. Jones, Perez has shot a dozen films over the last six years, of which PLAYING WITH DOLLS* is only the second to gain UK distribution. A cursory glance across IMDb would appear to suggest he’s about as much of a critical darling as Zombie Hamster’s very own favourite Welshman, but hey, we all love a trier.

Released via the debuting British label, Miracle Media, Perez’ film is spectacularly awful, but it’s a total hoot from start to finish. A group of aspiring actors are chosen to be on a reality based TV show where they have to face the thrills and scares of being in a slasher horror movie. They are taken to a remote cabin, where unbeknownst to them, the villain that they’re facing is actually a real psychopath who has been purposely let loose. Their reality show is real, and a masked nutcase is on a bloody rampage!

This is just fifty shades of wrong! From the get go we’re exposed to a bizarre tone, whereby it’s a tech-savvy reality-based concept, yet Perez has insisted on a Grindhouse vibe with the scratched print and so forth. It’s a mess of a fusion that smacks of chalk and cheese. Add to this a cast who seem to have just woken up from a blackout and thrown on set, and a narrative that utilises every cliché known to man, and you have an unmitigated disaster. But wait, Playing With Dolls actually possesses two secret ingredients that almost repeal this criticism; 1) A really cool killer with an awesome, and 2) Unrelenting, squirm-inducing, practical effects. Call me shallow and easily pleased, but these two factors made this grot-fest a very enjoyable seventy-five minutes, and for less than a fiver, I’m quite content with recommending such skank to you.

*In the weeks that followed, it became apparent that although the UK release of Playing with Dolls appeared to be the film that the artwork represented, it was actually the sequel, Playing with Dolls: Bloodlust. The first movie in Perez’s franchise DID eventually garner a British release, albeit in the rather contoversial guise of Leatherface!

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Vinnie Jones – LEFT TO DIE. Five words unlikely to see this critic shed a tear, although in this case it’s the title of his new film. Well, according to UK distro Kaleidoscope it’s HIS film, which in itself is a damning indictment of what’s seen to be appealing to the British public. Gone is the US artwork which highlighted the diverse cast of B-movie heaven – Robert Davi, Daryl Hannah, Michael Pare, Jason London, Edward Furlong – to be replaced by this talentless oik.

Helming Left to Die, or Awaken as it was known, or A Perfect Vacation as it was before then, is Mark Atkins. Atkins, who early on in his career churned out such recommendable fare as the Mike Gingold scripted Halloween Night, before heading up a gazillion Asylum features, positions Natalie Burn front and centre in this action crud-tacular. Burn plays Billie, a formidable ex-Special Forces agent who wakes up to discover she is stranded on a remote desert island. Rescued from a terrifying conflict with a killer mercenary by a determined group of islanders, it quickly becomes apparent that they are all part of a grim plot to harvest their organs.

Bursting at the seams with its veritable bounty of cool cast members, Left to Die comes unstuck chiefly at the point of the script. It’s just a little too ambitious for its own good, as wafer thin characters struggle to establish themselves as anything more than a cameo spotting checklist. Credit to Atkins though, his movie maintains a good pace throughout, and though it’s hardly the action spectacular that you’d wish for, it offers enough surprises to class it as a moreish marvel of mediocrity.

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