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

My ramblings on Left Films’ releases over the years have been done with a certain degree of despair, with precious few glimpses of low budget nectar rising up from a sea of weary mediocrity. Recently though, the UK-based distro has been making eyes at Proportion Productions – and a wise flirtation it is – as this home-grown company founded in 2014 by twenty-somethings Scott Jeffrey and Rebecca J Matthews, has been busy unearthing some white hot artistic talent and crafting a line of films that really raise the bar for British genre filmmaking.

Following the release of the excellent Darker Shades of Elise (2017) (DTV Junkyard 103), their sophomore outing, HOUSE ON ELM LAKE, shows that the former was by no means a fluke, as director James Klass turns in a quite disturbing, and at times genuinely horrifying fright-flick.

With a script from Shannon Holiday, who also penned Darker Shades of Elise, we meet Eric (Andrew Hollingworth), Becky (Becca Hirani) and their young daughter Penny (Faye Goodwin) who are moving into an idyllic lodge in the remote English countryside, blissfully ignorant of the heinous events that took place there in years gone by.

However, following a cursory warning from Mike (Tim Freeman), the Crazy Ralph-type-character of the piece, “You’re all alone up there! No one can hear you scream!” their new-found utopian paradise begins to disintegrate, and they soon discover that for centuries the old house on Elm Lake has been home to the servants of Lucifer.

If The Void can still be lauded to the max with a healthy dose of horror homages, then I’m sure it shouldn’t affect the standing of the House on Elm Lake, as in the first half hour Klass hurls the blood-filled kitchen sink into proceedings with a Ouija board, an elaborately bound journal and a multiple-hands-through-a-mattress bed sequence that the Don Coscarelli would be proud of. Ironically, despite these much-loved genre tropes, it’s the sight of a naked elderly gentleman than really sends shivers down the spine, as glimpses of a maniacal Elliot (Tony Manders), the last resident to lose his shit and butcher his family in the house, are profoundly unnerving.

Hirani shows her adaptability here in a role that’s streets apart from the titular character in Darker Shades of Elise, while the impressively hirsute newcomer Hollingworth portrays the increasingly unhinged Eric with a classy intensity. Tara MacGowran adds experience to the ensemble as psychic investigator Julie Soskin, and she also provides the cool trivia nugget of being the daughter of Jack MacGowran, who everyone will remember played Burke Dennings in The Exorcist (1973).

Seventy-five minutes is the optimal running time for a low-budget horror movie, and it’s here where my only major criticism of House on Elm Lake lies, as a slight pruning would have just streamlined a handful of drawn out sequences. Minor gripe aside, this is undoubtedly the most frightening British horror movie I’ve seen since Elliot Goldner’s Borderlands (2013). Chock-full of superbly scary imagery, and oozing with atmosphere, this was a real thrill to watch.

Next up for Proportion Productions is their remake of Don Gronquist’s censor-baiting nasty The Unhinged (1982). Snapped up by 88 Films and due for release on September 25th, it’ll be fascinating to see if they can maintain this level of consistency.

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As a claustrophobic agoraphobe, the ESCAPE ROOM phenomenon is one that’s eluded me, but its growth has been exponential over the course of the last decade, as the public’s desire for these puzzle-based adventure games has rocketed. Peter Dukes’ film takes us inside a popular Los Angeles variant of the craze, although it’s one that’s struggling to stay relevant. Having been voted the best of the best two years ago, owner Brice (Skeet Ulrich) is desperate to stay within reach of his competitors; “We’re not on any of the top lists” he laments, “I need this to be a big season!”

His quest for bric-a-brac to line the grey walled interior of his attraction takes him to a nearby collectibles store owned by Ramona (Sean Young), where he acquires the mysterious Skull Box, a trinket that we saw in the films prologue being buried in the Arabian Desert in 1887 by brothers Ammon and Mohamed owing to its evil capabilities – something that the next quartet of contestants booked into Brice’s Escape Room are about to discover.

Peter Dukes has been in shorts, so to speak, for the last two decades, directing a steady stream of self-penned mini-movies. Such an apprenticeship has obviously fine-tuned his scribing capability as he’s crafted a very cool foursome of central characters here. Front and centre is Jeff (Randy Wayne), a horror nerd par excellence. The home that he shares with girlfriend Angie (Ashley Gallegos) is decorated with lush iconic artwork like the poster for Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943), while his day job is chief critic at Blood Lust (dot com). Meanwhile, his best friend Ben (Matt McVay) is about to ask Jess (Christine Donlon) if she’ll move in with him, while the two guys spend much of their time flaunting their horror credentials at any given opportunity; “I was the lamb-masked wearing killer from You’re Next!”, boasts Jeff about the originality of his most recent Halloween costume.

The rules are simple as soon as they enter the Escape Room; no phones, no wireless, and follow the clues to escape. They do have company though, in the form of minimum wage rent-a-stooge Jonathan (Taylor Piedmonte); chained to the wall and resplendent in a sackcloth hood he’s snappily referred to as Stitchface, as he stands about three feet away from the Skull Box, which for the first time in over a century is about to be opened, and its evil unleashed.

How do you turn fifty-five minutes in a drab, cell-like room with muted fluorescent lighting into an edge-of-the-seat horror movie? Well, the director manages it with aplomb thanks to a heady blend of shocks, intrigue and tightly wrought tension – not to mention some trippy strobing of the highest order.

It’s a fine balancing act, and one that on a couple of occasions does find you tapping the cheap plastic face of your Casio wristwatch in petulant impatience. You see, with its middle-Eastern opening, and witty genre-specific dialogue, the bar it sets for itself is a high one which at times it just struggles to reach, most notably in the tight confines of the Escape Room. Having said that, such brief lulls in the pacing do precious little to diminish a very fine genre picture that’s a damn good ride.

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Everyone knows the story of Ted the Caver, right? At this point I’m really hoping for a hushed audience, peppered with raised eyebrows and quizzical expressions. Well, if like me you’re in the dark about this urban legend, as well as the Creepypasta stories that it’s a part of then let me fill in the blanks for you.

Creepypasta is of course a portmanteau of the words creepy and copypasta, and is an avenue for user-generated stories of the paranormal. The Slender Man, Jeff the Killer and Psychosis are a handful of the more widely known tales from the genre that peaked in 2010 when the New York Times ran a story on its popularity.

Ted the Caver began as an Angelfire website way back in 2001, when the adventures of a cave explorer and his friends began to appear there in a series of blog posts. Fast-forward just over a decade and we have LIVING DARK from writer / director David Hunt, who shot his movie in Arkansas way back in 2013 for a reputed budget of just under two million dollars.

Hunt’s movie changes the original story ever so slightly, with friends Ted and Brad now written as estranged brothers who after being reunited at their late father’s funeral vow to reconcile their differences during a caving expedition. Discovering a tiny unexplored passage within, they both descend into obsession, returning day after day in a relentless bid to gain access to the mysterious cavern beyond.

Much like the aforementioned Escape Room, the success of Living Dark hinges on the ability of the filmmakers to create terror and tension in the confines of a cramped setting with a handful of actors. Hunt’s movie is markedly less successful, but it’s not without merit as the suffocating claustrophobia of the cave sequences leave you gasping for oxygen, while the curiosity of what lies beyond the virgin passage is undeniably compelling.

While Chris Cleveland and Matthew Alan are both fine as Ted and Brad respectively, they are rather bland characters, which means there’s little in the first act to truly hook you in, save for determined perseverance! Thankfully, the appearance of the awesome Full Moon veteran Circus-Szalewski makes for a kick up the butt, although his bizarre British accent comes across as a unique blend of Dick Van Dyke and Danny from Withnail & I (1987).

There are a couple of instances which really raise the heartbeat, most notably when Ted senses that the evil presence from the cave may be lurking in his house, and here Hunt manages to nail the feeling of fear and dread to perfection. However, just what this demonic form manifests itself into may be a little bit of an anti-climax for most people watching, so much so, that by the time the flare-led climax overstays its welcome, the chances are you’ll be in two minds whether it was worth your time sticking it out.

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All this weeks films were released to UK DVD on the 11th September 2017


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