When Music Videos Go EVIL! “The Backlot Murders” reviewed! (Dark Force Entertainment and Code Red / Blu-ray)


After a night of drinking that ends in breaking a bottle over the bar owner’s head, a struggling and internally conflicted rock band kicks out the cancerously unhinged and troublesome member before their rise to stardom. Unfortunately, all the talent went out door along with the excommunicated band member, forcing the band to impress with an extravagant music video shot on Universal’s iconic backlot, sponsored by their agent and the lead singer’s girlfriend’s music mogul father. Instead of intense pyrotechnics and scantily cladded female groupies dancing on their crotch, the band, their girlfriends, and the crew find themselves caught in the gloomy, labyrinth-like movie lot, housing spooky interior and exterior sets, unaware the lurking murderous manic taking them out one-by-one.

By far a polar opposite polished genre film than the sadistically raw brutal rape and murder extravaganza that was “Chaos,” writer and director David “The Demon” DeFalco dabbles in the early 2000’s revival of the slasher genre with his 2002 released feature “The Backlot Murders” in the wake of the widespread success of the “Scream” franchise. In much of the same way “Chaos” came to fruition derived from “Last House on the Left,” DeFalco, once again, finds inspiration in the form of cult horror director Wes Craven. However, DeFalco strays away from the meta-horror and trope-reversal techniques and replaces it with a satirical façade of the music industry where glam is more important than meaningful substance. The slasher-comedy carves up nods to Van Halen, Pearl Jam, Aerosmith, and even Elvis Presley with a horrendously skewed mask version the killer wears. “The Backlot Murders” were co-written by Paul Arensburg and Steven Jay Bernheim with the latter writer serving also as co-producer with DeFalco in association with Dominion Entertainment.

A contributing factor to “Scream’s” success was the diverse in career cast that clicked together as well as twisting archetypical roles into atypical whammy that veered audiences to the edge of their seats. “Scream” shocked audiences with the immediate death of a well-known actress right out of the gate, nabbed “Friends’” star Courteney Cox, “SLC Punk” and “Hackers” actor Matthew Lilliard, teen heartthrob Skeet Urlich, one of the Arquettes with David Arquette, and, perhaps, would have guaranteed Neve Campbell a slab of concrete for the Hollywood Walk of Fame along with an already cemented label as a scream queen and a final girl. The same eclecticism could be transfixed by “The Backlot Murders’” acquisitions but on a more obscure scale with a cast from all walks of life that includes the Roger Rabbit voice actor himself, Charles Fleischer, “Three’s Company” star Priscilla Barnes, 1997’s Playboy Playmate Carrie Stevens, and the late Corey Haim (“The Lost Boys”) as the band’s guitarist in a role that seemed below his fame stature. Most gaps are plugged with interesting characters treated with some backstory buildup that becomes more stagnant than footfall companions in order to get to know them better before their demise, but their persona conductors include Brian Gaskill (“The Bloody Indulgent”), Tom Hallick, Jaime Anstead, Dayton Knoll, Lisa Brucker, Ken Sagoes (“A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors”), LoriDawn Messuri, Angela Little, and Tracy Dali.

“The Backlot Murders” didn’t set out to revolutionize the slasher genre, but only relished in the after success and donned a more satire effort that purposefully retreated back into the conventional tropes to form an entertaining run of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll gags, but the one thing missing, and it’s a doozy, is the actual killer presence in the film who is treated as an afterthought of slim importance and chucked into a insignificant plot twist that forces DeFalco’s hand to become a routine hack’n’slash lemming. One positive aspect of “The Backlot Murders” is the extremely high body count that produces a continuous stream of nixing off a slew of characters with their own death scenes inside the renowned confines of a Universal backlot backdrop that’s not only good-humored irony but also a sizeable effort by the Bernheim/DeFalco producing team. Yet, despite the high body count, the kills and gore felt sorely uninspired and underwhelming, rehashing into homage death scenes from “Friday the 13th” and “Scream” with a few forgettable approaches to call its own, until DeFalco breaks the damning goreless streak with a gruesome Columbian necktie effect that goes for the throat. I make “The Backlot Murders” seem unenjoyable and heartless when, in fact, the early 2000 slasher-comedy is immensely funny with a Charles Fleisher gold recorded, laugh track amongst the relentless mocking of the music industry from a far in this true to form slasher accessorized with a high body count kill dozer of a villain.

When things are quiet on set, “The Backlot Murders” evoke the slasher spirit on a new-to-Blu Blu-ray release in the U.S. from Dark Force Entertainment and Code Red with MVDVisual handling distribution. The 1080p, hi-def release is presented in an anamorphic widescreen from a brand new 4K scan of the original 35mm negative. The cool contextual colors render nicely amongst the shadowy gloom and foggy backdrop that’s reminiscent of a softly lit late 90’s and early 2000s slasher. The textures are sharper than the Razor Digital DVD release; the tactile feeling of asphalt when a bluish white glow hits the pavement or the gritty backlot sets vibrant with an ominous glow strike powerful chords of a lively presence from the transfer. There doesn’t seem to be any cropping, edge enhancing, or any other manipulation to the transfer present. The English mono track, which leans away from the LFE, has the opposite, lackluster appeal with a single channel blockade that doesn’t project the bands pyrotechnics, the screams of being chased, and settling for limitations on other wide range of girthy resounding audio. However, the dialogue is clear, unobstructed, and in the forefront. Bonus material includes a new audio commentary with director David DeFalco and Code Red’s Banana Man plus three new and very bizarre interviews with Carrie Stevens lingering from effects of the #MeToo movement to making home fudge, with Charles Fleisher and dissociative disorder or madman genius insight, and ending with a fairly regular interview with Brian Gaskill recollecting the film and his career through a tough industry standard. The Fleisher and Gaskill interviews end with a video op with The Demon himself, David DeFalco. “The Backlot Murders” had forefront potential of systemic slasher films of the time period, but pitter-patters for levity and a sweeping kill count that reconstructs the dread into death and comedy.

“The Backlot Murders” on Prime Video!

To Be EVIL, You Must Capture EVIL! “Thir13en Ghosts” reviewed! (Blu-ray / Scream Factory)

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A maniacal and obsessed ghost hunter, Cyrus Kriticos, traps 12 tormented and violent spirits with the help of an avaricious, but anguished psychic, Dennis Rafkin, but when trapping the last ghost, the worst of the worst, a barbaric mass murder in life and in death named Juggernaut, Cyrus is killed in the process. His death leads to the inheritance of a one-of-a-kind house to his widowed nephew, Arthur, and his two children who are barely scraping by after the unexpected fiery death of their beloved wife and mother. When they enter what seemingly feels like a godsend house, immaculately structured entirely out of glass and metal, they find themselves trapped inside after tripping a series of mechanism that turn the isolated and elegant abode into a labyrinthic machine. Stuck inside with Arthur and his family are Dennis Rafkin and a ghost friendly liberator, Kalina Oretiza, who explain that the house is actually an evil machine with a goal of opening the eye to Hell and that the ghosts, imprisoned in the basement, are components that are being set free one-by-one in order to fulfill the ritual.
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In the world of remakes, only a select few ever surpass the original. In fact, on rare occasions, do remakes actually replace the original due in part to being beyond respectful as well as masterful amongst critics and genre fans that have bestowed the reimagining an untouchable rendition to which no one can find anything wrong with it; this films include John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” David Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” and Chuck Russell’s “The Blob,” with Zack Synder’s “Dawn of the Dead” and Tom Savini’s “Night of the Living Dead” receiving well-deserved honorable mentions, because let’s face it, topping George Romero’s original work can be said to be blasphemous slander. What about those remakes in between? Those just above the pile of awfulness that generally makeup remakes? I consider Steve Beck’s “Thir13en Ghosts” to be one of this mid-level remake films that registers well with fans, but on the flips side of that coin, doesn’t ascend to total prominence over its predecessor. Written by longtime Full Moon Entertainment writer Neal Marshall Stevens (“Hideous!” and “The Killer Eye”) and Richard D’Ovidio (“The Call”), “Thir13en Ghosts” is a 2001 near-total rework of the 1960 William Castle directed and Robb White scripted “13 Ghosts” that used gimmicks like 3D specter glasses to draw audiences into the theater. “Thir13en Ghosts” was the second film after another William Castle remake, “House on Haunted Hill,” of the newly formed, William Castle nod-to, Dark Castle Entertainment, a division of Joel Silver’s Silver Productions formed by Silver, Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future”), and Gilbert Adler (“Bordello of Blood”) that honed initially on producing stylishly modern takes on classic gothic horror, such as “Ghost Ship,” the remake of “House of Wax,” and “Orphan.” What came out of this collaboration between Steve Beck and Dark Castle Entertainment is a complete dismantling of the wood paneling and lament flooring story for a modern marvel to emerge of unique terror that hasn’t been duplicated since.
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“Thir13en Ghosts” has an impressive, if not all-star, cast with diverse range of styles and experiences that it’s almost dumbfounding on how the filmmakers were able to contract some of these talents, including F. Murray Abraham, who has had an already eclectic credit list with “Amadeus,” “Surviving the Game,” and Mimic, and Tony Shalhoub who hand standout performances in “Addams Family Values,” “Men in Black,” and “Galaxy Quest.” Abraham and Shalhoub bring a sense of classical and methodological structure in a stark contrast between rationality and irrationality built upon an indifference of solitude and a sense of family. Then, there’s the comedic relief in the midst of danger, Matthew Lilliard (“Scream”) as the suffering psychic who uses his wit tongue to spur others and introducing hip-hop artist, Rah Digga, in one of her only motion picture performances to alleviate suspension with more tongue-and-cheek moments. Lilliard and Digga offer up two different comic styles while sustaining the underlying severity of being trapped inside an evil machine full of violent ghosts. Shannon Elizabeth, who we all know by now as the stunning “American Pie” girl, Nadia, or as I know her as the unfortunately raped and murder victim of a killer snowman in “Jack Frost,” plays Arthur Kriticos daughter, Kathy, who still a fresh faced newcomer to Hollywood despite being a hot commodity after her topless role in “American Pie.” The superb support roles don’t end there with notable roles from JR Bourne (“Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning”), Matthew Harrison, Alec Roberts, John DeSantis, and EmBeth Davidtz, Sheila from “Army of Darkness,” as the ghost liberator.
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It’s hard to believe that “Thir13en Ghosts” is nearly 20-years old. I still recall my 17 year old self sitting in for a theatrical showing, remembering the opening gargoyle growling as the Dark Castle Entertainment logo reveals itself during the opening title credits, and coming out of the maze-like, gory-ghost film having experienced something special, even if then I didn’t understand why, only to years later realize that I’ve never seen something like “Thir13en Ghosts” before in my life. How does a remake reinvent itself so much that it can separate itself from the original film while also beguile with fresh ideas and no take a slew of browbeating chirps from those who holdfast that the original is the one and only? Most remakes cheaply throw gore to the wind, adding buckets of blood in hopes to satisfy horror buffs, but what winds up happening is that we ultimately get bored, having experienced blood and guts from singular storied films. “Thir13n Ghosts’” premise isn’t the only worthwhile experience that deserves praise, but also the spectacular production design by Sean Hargraves that thrusts the glass house concept into new heights with the house actually becoming an interestingly steampunk character itself and the prosthetic effects from a team spearheaded by a trio of the best special makeup effects artists in horror today, such as Howard Berger, Robert Kurtzman, and Gregory Nicotero., turning ghoulish encounters to ghastly visions that convey truly a tormented soul in the 12 ghosts. Though the story itself isn’t perfect, flawed at times with static character development and a few plot holes involving the ghosts and sequences of events, “Thir13en Ghosts” remains a cult favorite gaslit by frightening imagery, a solid cast, and unforgetting production design that started 21st century horror off brazenly strong.
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Collect all “Thir13en Ghosts” on the Collector’s Edition Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory sheathed in a cardboard slip cover and has a reverse artwork liner that has the original poster artwork and new vivid illustration by Joel Robinson. Presented in a 1080p, high definition widescreen, 1.85:1 aspect ratio, from the original 35mm negative, “Thir13en Ghosts” shares a consistent image and vibrancy layer with the DVD version with an enhanced color stability. No edge enhancement or cropping adjustments rendered or any other blemishes to speak of, but the softer details could have been sharpened to gave a hard edge around the non-spiritual energy. The English language DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 boosts the already hefty soundtrack that’s full of explosions and ghostly swooshes and moaning hums, finished off with grand, orchestra soundtrack by John Frizzell It’s been said that audience had to excuse themselves from the film due in part to the overbearing noise coupled with the strobe-like imagery, but the overall audio and visuals are a combined one-two punch of sensory power that works well. The Scream Factory release has new interviews in the bonus material, including sit downs with actors Shannon Elizabeth, Matthew Harrison, and John DeSantis and producer Gilbert Adler. There’s also a audio commentary with director’s Steve Beck, production designer Sean Hargraves, and special effects artist Howard Berger. There’s also an in-depth look at the creation of the thirteen ghosts in a small featurette, their backstory profiles, and the theatrical trailer. However you want to call it, whether it’s “Thir13en Ghosts,” “Thirteen Ghosts, or “13 Ghosts,” this new century remake still holds up to today’s horror lot with spellbinding phantom pandemonium in a glass box!

“Thir13en Ghosts” on Blu-ray on Amazon.com