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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

THE HAGSTONE DEMON -- DVD review by porfle

As aesthetically pleasing as it is blood-chilling, director Jon Springer's THE HAGSTONE DEMON (2011) often looks like an art film with its lush black-and-white photography and creative camera angles.  But instead of pretense, director Jon Springer has infused this Gothic horror tale with a queasy sense of unease dotted by moments that are genuinely unsettling.

Mark Borchardt stars as Douglas Elmore, a former journalist who's now the caretaker for a spooky old apartment building scheduled to be demolished.  As the last tenants reluctantly prepare to vacate, Elmore becomes involved with a homeless girl named Karna (Nadine Gross) squatting in a basement apartment.  Her increasingly strange behavior is somehow linked to Elmore's visions of his dead wife Julia, who committed suicide after they took part in a Satanic ritual which was supposedly meant to enable them to have a child. 

The gangly, long-haired Borchardt has perhaps the least refined acting style of the otherwise excellent cast, but this fits his unassuming and somewhat listless character.  His manner initially suggests that the film is going to be a dry spoof of the genre, especially when an eccentric old lady reads his fortune after he fixes her plumbing in an amusing opening scene.  But any deadpan humor derived from these characters serves only as a stark contrast to the dark events to follow.

Karna's involvement with an unearthly-looking man and her calculated sexual advances toward Elmore lead us deeper into the mystery surrounding the Hagstone building.  Haunted by his wife's apparition, Elmore lapses into weird dreams (which are in vivid color) and has a vision of being forced to partake in yet another ritual while drugged.  Then some of the building's tenants start to turn up dead. 

Springer directs all of this with an artist's eye while the black-and-white photography reflects a number of influences, from the shadowy beauty of film noir to the morbid nightmarishness of David Lynch's ERASERHEAD.  The cemetery scenes look like something out of Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. 

A major influence seems to be the low-budget cult classic CARNIVAL OF SOULS--the look and atmosphere are often similar, while Elmore's confusion about what's happening around him is heightened as his world becomes increasingly dreamlike.  We even get the occasional strain of creepy organ music.  The most striking similarity comes when Elmore is sitting in his car at night, and Springer shocks us out of our seats with a shot that almost mirrors one of the scariest moments in the earlier film.

As Elmore's past sins begin to catch up with him, he enlists the aid of his brother-in-law, a young priest named Carl (Sasha Andreev), and his pretty neighbor Barbara (Cyndi Kurtz), who's inexplicably attracted to him, in an attempt to confront the evil infesting the Hagmore.  What follows is a series of bizarre and frightening setpieces including a frenzied possession scene and a really disturbing foray into the dark crawlspace beneath the building.  Here, Springer deftly pulls off a number of bloodcurdling shocks along with some horrifically haunting imagery that should give you an acute case of the shivers.

The supporting cast is top-notch, with standouts including Nadine Gross' intense performance as Karna, Marilyn Murray's endearingly eccentric Mrs. Brennan, and Jay Smiley as excitable oddball Mr. Thompson.  Andreev and Kurtz are capable as Elmore's allies against evil, while Gizelle Erickson, who plays the dead Julie, is a highly expressive presence.  The film is stocked with numerous other interesting players who add to the overall atmosphere.

The DVD from Pacific Entertainment is in widescreen with Dolby 5.1 surround sound.  There are no subtitles.  Along with an odd commentary by Springer and star Mark Borchardt (which often has little or nothing to do with the film), extras include a creepy 20-minute Springer short film called "Dollface", a video interview with Borchardt, behind-the-scenes photos and illustrations, deleted and alternate scenes, and trailers.

It's one thing when a film is this interesting to look at, but when it also comes through with as much spooky ambiance and nerve-rattling scares as THE HAGSTONE DEMON, it's a keeper.  Or at least worthy of a rental.  Either way, fans of old-fashioned Gothic horror should definitely check it out.

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