Tune In to EVIL’s Frequency. “99.9” reviewed! (Cult Epics / Blu-ray)

Lara, a paranormal radio show host, learns her close friend and former lover has been tragically killed in an accident at small village of Jimena.  Determined to find out what happened after a mysteriously mailed tape unveils disturbing images of her friend, Lara travels to Jimena to investigate the accident she believes was intentional.  Entangled amongst the village’s strange residents, suspicions are high on just about everyone who had contact with the deceased, but Lara is certain about one thing, at the center of her investigation is an abandoned house with a ghastly urban legend, afflicted by the entombment of murdered women and children souls and, one-by-one, the faces of the torture souls are manifestly etched out from within the walls onto the surface.  As Lara inches closer to the truth of her friend’s research of the phenomenon, the shocking truth will reveal a dark power trying to keep the house’s secrets contained.

Estranged lover.  Tortured souls.  Witchcraft.  Secret experiments.  Murder mystery.  Agustí Villaronga’s “99.9” depicts a loaded, shrouded ethereal thriller with a thin translucent layer of homosexuality draped over so delicately you almost don’t realize the Spanish filmmaker’s subtle exhibition of lifestyle exile.  The 1997 film, also known as “99.9:  The Frequency of Terror,” a subtitle moved from the main title to tagline status, is shot primarily in Madrid as well as certain exterior shots in La Vereda, Guadalajara to provide the intimate essence of a small village’s ever-watching glower.  Villaronga, along with cowriters Lourdes Iglesias and Jesús Regueira, stitch an argyle style narrative sweater of consistent checkered behavior inside an ostentatious presentation of simmering hostility toward foreigners and homosexuals, stirring an isolating heroine into a mixture of local animus and lingering occultism.   “The Black Moon” and “Ninth Gate” executive producer Antonio Cardenal solely funds “99.9” and with Impala and Origen Producciones Cinematograficas serving as co-productions. 

Bearing most of the story’s weight is lead actress María Barranco (“Witching and Bitching”) in an unfamiliar to her thriller role polar opposite of her profound previous work as a comedienne in the vocational genre.  Yet, Barranco grabs the role with undue hesitation or eager to professional please Villaronga with her character entering a spurning atmosphere seething with mistrust and ill-intent.  Playing a single mother enduring the unknown status of her estranged lover, also the father of her fatherless child, it isn’t until a package containing a VHS tape of mostly recorded static and a naked man, her estranged lover Victor (Gustavo Salmerón, “V/H/S Viral”), briefly seen fleeing for his life instills a strong uncompromising need to find the truth.  Barranco captures being rocked and shaken by Victor’s footage so much so that her tension and fear contagiously transmit to the viewer and that hardly lets up in a deluge of suspicious and dread curiousness compelling her to investigate the gruff and oddly civil villagers.  One of those village inhabitants, Juan Márquez, reeks of nervous energy that’s poured into his hunky local mechanic Mauri who becomes the mystery’s weakest link amongst the unbreakable locals, especially under the rigid impatience of Mauri’s girlfriend Julia (Ruth Gabriel), house owner Lázaro (Ángel de Andrés López, “Sexy Killer: You’ll Die for Her “), and the creepy committed bruha mother Dolores (Terele Pávez, “The Day of the Beast,” “Witching and Bitching”).  Pávez stamps her presence into “99.9’s” grim resolve that links Dolores to the souls trapped in the house with fanatical obsession.  The cast rounds out with Simón Andreu (“Flesh+Blood”), Pedro Mari Sánchez (“Creation of the Damned”), Maite Brik, and Paula Soldevila (“Immortal Sins”).

If I had to compare another film to “99.9’s” persistent bleak atmospherics and a singular principle quietly poking around to solve a cryptic scene-turner, a more widely known and recognizable title with a familiar cast, I would put up Villaronga’s film against Robert Zemeckis’s circa 2000 Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer thriller “What Lies Below.”  Both works are saturated with melancholy stuffing and are beautifully shot in their own stylistic right, but Villaronga adds an undercurrent of homosexual persecution as well as a xenophobic aspect that seeks to discourage, dismay, and disconcert nosy foreigners poking around in local business with a gray area of a big city versus little community vibe and scientific fact versus yokel superstition.  Yet, the script renders omission at more pivotal character junctures that go in-depth about backstory, such as the case with the forgotten Victor who, despite being a major plotpoint in the opening scene of the movie, is more a name thrown around as device to stir commotion amongst the locals.  Victor’s experiments in capturing the images and sounds of tortured souls aimlessly floating inside an ethereal plane in the electronic noise of television broadcast during his very much alive subjects’ REM sleep practically dissipates faster than a bottom burp with the window open and the breeze blowing. As loose as the script may be, Villaronga makes up for it with a tone of stern pall, a delicate theme of bigotry mitigated by the tortured souls and mischievous plot ingredients, and the timorous determination exuding from Maria Barranco’s portrayal.

“99.9” is Lara’s radio station frequency; a frequency in the story that nurtures and embraces the abnormal paranormal from callers night in, night out. Instead of sitting comfortably behind a mic and headphones, cozy in her sound proof studio, her frequency is a barrier that is flipped on it’s head as she becomes involved in like the stories of her callers. Speaking of flipping, in more of a “99.9” is Lara’s radio station frequency; a frequency in the story that nurtures and embraces the abnormal paranormal from callers night in, night out. Instead of sitting comfortably behind a mic and headphones, cozy in her sound proof studio, her frequency is a barrier that is flipped on it’s head as she becomes involved in like the stories of her callers. Speaking of flipping, in more of a layman, satanic sense, “99.9” inverted is also the sign of the beast. Either way, two solid possible metaphors for “99.9” give meaning to the tuning title that’s now available on a dual-layer Blu-ray and DVD combo from Cult Epics who present the film in the original European preferred widescreen 1.66:1 aspect ratio from a 2K scan of the original 35mm negative. Villaronga’s chromatic vision finds unadulterated success in the crisp, clean picture of the Cult Epics release with almost no damage from the original transfer. There’s a slight, and extremely brief, scratch noticeable in the first half of the film, but the amount of grain is perfection and no evidence of manipulation of enhancing. Details are insanely delicate on every tactile texture, even the skin. Aforesaid, Villaronga expresses in color, using a cool blue tints, which is actually toned down some with the transfer, and implementing different lighting techniques to reinforce Javier Aguirresarobe’s breathtaking scenic wide wide shot cinematography. The Spanish language DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 on the Blu-ray packs a punch with balanced channels funneling not only clean, unobstructed dialogue, but also “Pan’s Labyrinth” composer, Javier Navarrete,’s brooding baritone, chordophone score. There are two other audio options for the DVD: a LPCM 2.0 Stereo and a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Optional English subtitles are available and do match up well with no faults. Special features include a new-ish interview with director Agusti Villaronga conducted by Cult Epic’s Nico B, the making of 99.9 that has archival interviews with the director, María Barranco, and other cast and crew, an isolated Javier Navarrete score, and Agusti Villaronga trailers. Both formats are region free and not rated with a runtime of 111 minutes. Back in the 90’s when Spanish supernatural thrillers peaked, “99.9” was right there with a captivating ghostly gossamer from Spain.

Own 99.9 on Blu-ray DVD Combine from Amazon.Com!

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