Fear of the Dark DVD Review (plus a preview of The Tenement)
Written by Eric Strauss
DVD released by Light & Dark Productions
Written and directed by Glen Baisley
2001, Region 0 (NTSC) 117 minutes, Not rated
Rosemary Gore as Alice
Vanessa Edwards as Karen
Mike Lane as Michael
Herb Smithline as Dr. Fisher
Watching a low-budget film is something like scouting minor-leaguers: Part of the fascination is more than the film itself; it is imagining what the filmmakers and actors could become, given time and money. Ultimately, for a reviewer, one of the most important questions about any movie is not what its makers might do in the future, but what they do here and now. In the case of Fear of the Dark, writer and director Glen Baisley has succeeded on both counts, fashioning an enjoyable horror mystery and offering an intriguing glimpse of what his Light & Dark Productions may become.
Fear of the Dark opens with the story of the Black Rose Killer, who terrorized a small town 20 years ago before vanishing after a murder attempt gone awry. As the film advances to the present day, his last would-be victim, Alice Walker (Rosemary Gore) has grown up to be a neurotic young woman who has never truly recovered from seeing her parents slain. And when she begins dreaming of the Black Rose Killer, and the bodies start piling up, she finds herself wondering if she has lost her mind, or if she has the power to catch the killer and save her town.
Thus, Fear becomes a story with two levels: The psychological study of Alice; and the deterioration of her life, as her loved ones refuse to believe the Black Rose Killer's return is anything but her imagination.
Despite its touch-of-madness overtones, Baisley keeps Fear’s pacing efficient, and the movie benefits for it. Although there are times when Fear is unintentionally laugh-out-loud funny, every time it seems to veer dangerously toward Mystery Science Theater 3000 territory, Baisley finds a way to get things under control and the film regains its effectiveness. He also deserves high marks for his directing style, and his use of just the right amount of point-of-view shots, close-ups and odd angles is a benefit.
The acting, as with any low-budget film, is a risky proposition, and the uneven performances are one of the few black marks on Baisley’s direction. Gore is talented, but has plenty of rough edges; her highs are excellent, her lows laughable. But she is offset nicely by the solid Vanessa Edwards, who plays Alice's housemate, Karen. Edwards' best may not be as good, but she gives a consistent performance that provides an anchor for the film. And to Edwards’ credit, she is at her best at the climax of the film. Mike Lane, playing Alice’s boyfriend Michael, is another actor who shows some promise, but far too often that gives way to over-the-top antics that grate and feel out of whack with the rest of the film. On the other hand, Herb Smithline does the best all-around job as Alice’s psychologist, Dr. Fisher — convincing enough to make one wonder if he really has some training in the field. And Danielle Russo (playing Janice, the gratuitous eye candy) deserves a mention, simply because she is drop-dead gorgeous.
If the actors frustrate at times, viewers can save their applause for the special-effects crew, Anthony “Dr. Death” Eikner and Death Head Productions. From an early, bloody disembowelment to the bloody destruction of a pet gerbil, the gore guys get the most out of their budget, and deserve high marks.
The film has several nice touches, including some tongue-in-cheek humor and a classic scene in which a character, face-to-face with the Black Rose Killer, pulls the old elementary-school playground trick of faking a wide run right, then sharply cutting back left to dodge the bad guy.
If the film’s low budget shows through regularly, hampering the picture and sound quality and providing the occasional “huh?” moment, it seldom turns disastrous — a tribute to Baisley’s craftsmanship.
Most independent “C-movies” are labors of love, and Fear of the Dark is no exception: It is clear from the film (and the included behind-the-scenes featurette) that Baisley loves making movies, and his actors love appearing in them. That kind of enthusiasm should endear Light & Dark Productions to viewers, and make them look forward to what the company will produce in the future.
Video and Audio:
The full-frame image is hit with a double-whammy: The film itself suffers from its low-budget nature, and the DVD authoring only exacerbates its flaws. Bad lighting, always the bane of inexpensive films, renders the nighttime scenes almost incomprehensible, and the brighter scenes sometimes suffer from a washed-out look. The DVD only adds to the problems with sporadic compression artifacts and quite a bit of digital noise, particularly in the bright daylight scenes.
The 2.0 sound quality also suffers from the low budget, as the added music and effects sometimes overwhelm the dialogue, which seems to suffer from the absence of any kind of boom mike.
A 10-minute behind-the-scenes featurette is included at the end of the film, and it offers a glimpse at the making of a low-budget film — and really makes you root for the good-natured Baisley and his cast and crew.
|– Some rough edges, but a solid psychological mystery makes for an entertaining and enjoyable film.
|– It’s a bad image, but that’s not unexpected.
|– Almost as bad as the image, but again, the flaws are understandable.
|– Not a lot, but it’s enough — and well done.
|– The DVD itself is pretty poor, but the film on it is definitely worth a look.
Fear of the Dark certainly shows Glen Baisley’s potential as a filmmaker, but it is more than that. It is an effective horror mystery that overcomes its flaws and deserves a look on the basis of what its creators have done, and not just what they might do someday.
Preview of The Tenement:
The Tenement, a prequel to Fear of the Dark, will be released through Brain Damage Films in April. Although the VHS screener provided to Horror DNA suffered from some poor image and sound quality, Brain Damage’s work on TimeWarp Films’ Vampire Sisters DVD offers hope the quality of the next Light & Dark DVD will be a step up from the independently made Fear.
The Tenement does, in fact, represent an attempt by writer and director Glen Baisley to take the next step in his filmmaking. Using an old apartment house as the basis for a Tales from the Crypt-style series of shorts, he emphasizes the psychological aspect of horror. This contrasts sharply to the much more straightforward Fear of the Dark, but does it work?
The Tenement is basically divided into four episodes. But the movie is a risk for one basic reason: The emphasis on the mental and emotional state of its characters forces the lead actors to stretch to the limits of their talent — and unfortunately, not all succeed. Obviously, no matter how well crafted a half-hour sequence is, when the star doesn’t fare well, the whole thing suffers.
There certainly are highlights, however. The second story — by far the best — is the tale of a would-be rapist (John Sudol) stalking a mute girl (well-played by the lineless Carol DiMarsico). It features some very, very effective sequences, especially when he discovers there is more to her than meets the eye. And in the fourth episode, a duel of serial killers, Danielle Russo (offering some backstory for her own Fear of the Dark character) gets to show less skin and more of her acting chops, and comes through very favorably, as does her opposite number, the hulking Ed Shelinsky.
But what might have been the film’s two signature stories are hurt by the same inconsistent acting that plagued Fear of the Dark. Mike Lane returns from Fear to star in the third sequence as a paranoid dog-bite victim who may be turning into a werewolf. And while his hammy performance may fit The Tenement better than it did the earlier film, it still seems more of a minus than a plus. And while Joe Lauria, playing the young man destined to become the Black Rose Killer in the first episode, is better, he is a little too annoying a little too often throughout his showcase.
Among the shorter stories interspersed with the main episodes, the best is the opening sequence, starring cute Suzi Leigh as the victim of a cult in a film-within-the-film.
The one true letdown of the film, however, comes in the Black Rose Killer sequence, when several performers, including Baisley and Fangoria bigwig Michael Gingold — a dreadful actor — seem to have real trouble maintaining their composure. Light & Dark seems to strive for legitimate quality, and this lack of professionalism is a real letdown.
Glen Baisley took a real chance with The Tenement, pushing the limits of his cast and budget in an effort to take the next step forward in his moviemaking career. And for that, he must be commended. Yes, Fear of the Dark is a more enjoyable film, but that doesn’t mean The Tenement is a step backward for Baisley and his Light & Dark Productions. What it means, perhaps, is that he has reached the limits of his current capabilities in terms of budget and cast. So what fans must hope for is that someone with stronger financial backing sees what Baisley has to offer, and gives him the chance to really move up into the B-movie world of films like Stakes and Flesh for the Beast.
Until that time, Baisley will have to take comfort in the fact that Fear of the Dark and The Tenement prove he can craft entertaining films. And if he spends the intervening years working on eliciting better, more consistent performances from his actors, when his chance to take the next step comes, he should be more than ready.
|– Baisley continues to show a lot of promise as a filmmaker, but his psychological horror prequel suffers from too much schizophrenia.
(Reviewed in February 2004 on a Mitsubishi 1080 series 42" TV with a Sony DVP-CX875P DVD player and Bose Lifestyle 25 Series II speakers.)