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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

DARK REEL -- DVD review by porfle

In the black-and-white intro, which takes place in the 50s, a struggling actress named Scarlett May (Alexandra Holden) is lured into a dark movie soundstage late one night with the promise of a screen test. But the dapper young man calling himself a film producer turns out to be a machete-wielding psycho who hacks the blonde starlet to pieces.

After this bleak, noirish beginning, DARK REEL (2008) suddenly morphs into an uneven comedy-thriller hybrid as hypertense present-day producer Connor Pritchett (Lance Henriksen) puts up with flighty actors and an egotistical director in order to complete his latest cheapo opus, "The Pirate Wench." Edward Furlong plays a geeky film fan named Adam Waltz who wins the chance for a walk-on role in the production, and in a rather unlikely development hits it off with leading lady Cassie Blue (Tiffany Shepis) who, for some strange reason, falls for this pasty-looking shlub.

The shoot is proceeding normally when suddenly one of the castmembers is brutally murdered by a dark figure with long blonde hair and a really ugly mask. Soon after, the cast and crew are viewing dailies when Adam sees the ghost of Scarlett May on the screen, trying to tell him something. More bloody killings and ghostly manifestations take place until finally the truth is revealed and the mystery is solved. Or is it?

DARK REEL takes its own bloody time between murders. Much of the rest of the film is a rather droll comedy about low-budget filmmaking, though it's hardly as farcical as, say, HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, with most of the cast playing it pretty deadpan and managing to turn in rather good performances. There are a few stalwart old pros on hand here, including Henriksen, Tony Todd as a no-nonsense homicide detective, and Tracey Walter as a tabloid reporter who always seems to turn up at the scene of the crime.

Edward Furlong, who looked like he'd died and gone to Career Hell when I saw him a few years ago in a celluloid disaster called VENICE UNDERGROUND, actually comes off pretty well here, and scream queen Tiffany Shepis, who seems to be busy as a beaver these days, does a very nice acting job. Rena Riffel is likable as Todd's movie-buff partner Detective LaRue, while Brooke Lyons is flat-out gorgeous in the role of Lance Henriksen's secretary Tanya. Whit Hertford, formerly one of the creepiest-looking child actors of all time (you may remember him from JURASSIC PARK and THE ADDAMS FAMILY) plays the creepy-looking Onion Chef (don't ask), while FX makeup guru Rick Baker does a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo.

The exploitation stuff is strong but sporadic. Tiffany does a little intermittent nudity and there are some other scantily-clad babes scampering around here and there, but there's lots of down time between this and the various bursts of gore. The murder scenes do get pretty graphic and surprisingly grim, with some close-up throat slashings and splattery dismemberments--one guy even gets beaten senseless with his own arm--and the ghostly supernatural stuff manages to generate a few slight chills. The rest of the film is dominated by that odd mix of drama and comedy, both of which somehow come off pretty well (thanks largely to the skills of a highly competent cast) although it's an uneasy blend. The finale is played mostly straight and is fairly suspenseful, with a nice twist or two.

Technically, this is one of the nicest-looking low budget slasher films you'll ever see, with rich photography and lighting by cinematographer Charles Rose and a good directing job by co-scripter Josh Eisenstadt. The music tends to get a bit overbearing at times. The DVD's visual and audio quality are good, with 1.85:1 widescreen and Dolby Digital sound. Since I viewed a screener, I can't comment on extras.

I wasn't expecting much from DARK REEL, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it so professionally done. It's a terrific-looking B-movie with a solid cast, some lovely ladies, and a fair amount of bloody mayhem for the gorehounds in the audience. The main drawback is that there's so much slow, talky stuff between the visceral thrills. I enjoyed the characters and was entertained by the scenes which amusingly satirize the world of low-budget filmmaking, but some may get a little restless waiting for various things to jiggle or splatter.

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