Review Date: March 18, 2010
Released by: Celebrity Video Distribution
Release date: 5/5/2009
Region 0, NTSC
Widescreen 1.78:1 | 16x9: Yes
Adjusted for inflation, the $114,000 that it cost to make Night of the Living Dead
in 1968 is equivalent to $698,000 in today’s money. The paltry $83,000 that it cost to make The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
is now the equivalent of about $361,000, and the budgets of The Evil Dead
are now worth about $819,000 and $1.04 million, respectively. These numbers pose a real dilemma to a generation of horror fans who are filming micro-budgeted movies, sometimes with as little as $5000, in the hopes of emulating the great genre classics which they love so much. How do they get the kind of results that Tobe Hooper or George Romero got when they have less money than they did in absolute terms, and much, much less when inflation is thrown into the mix?
The short answer is that most can’t, but there is certainly no shortage of people still trying. Our review for today is one such film, made in Texas by a first-time filmmaker who estimates he only spent around $35,000 on his movie.
Texas, Halloween night, 1987 - We begin our story at a remote house in the countryside. An old man (Carl L. Marmion
) is conducting a black mass alone in his living room, Wearing a black sheet – er, I mean, a black cape – he intones “Lucifer almighty, I summon thee. Be friendly unto me, for I am of the same: a true worshipper of the highest and indescribable King of Hell. Descend into this host, come, you are welcome. Come onto this host tonight. For the night is yours to rule.” As he continues with the ceremony a horrific demon (Brant Bumpers
) crawls out of an old well outside and comes into the house. The demon growls, the old man screams and we fade to black.
Flash forward to today as we meet Charlie Cooper (Gabriel McIver
), a student at Southwestern Texas College. It’s October 30th and Charlie and his friends have a problem: pressure from religious right groups has forced the cancellation of the annual Halloween haunted house shindig and now they have nowhere to party. Fortunately, though, Charlie has a solution. It seems the old Satanist shown at the beginning of the movie was Charlie’s uncle, and nobody knows he was killed by a demon because his body was never found. For years he has been considered a missing person, but recently the state declared him legally dead and gave his property to his only known next of kin, Charlie. The next day the kids head out into the countryside, intent on partying it up. Besides Charlie, the group contains his girlfriend Cindy (Katrina Ellsworth
), her younger Goth sister Stephanie (Emilie Tucker
), party animal and pothead Joe (Dennis Walsh
) and his girlfriend Helen (Karina Dominquez
), and two characters to round out the ethnic make-up of the group, the black Steve (Chris Burton
) and the Latino friend Johnny (George L. Ortiz
What the group doesn’t know is that the area has seen a rash of disappearances lately, all of them beautiful girls. Local lawman Sheriff Mad Locke (Robert Lee Perrill
) intercepts the kids on their way to the house and tries to warn them away from it, but they refuse to listen. Soon though they will discover the error of their ways. The party begins, but an uninvited guest soon reveals himself. The demon who killed Charlie’s uncle rises again from the depths of Hell, taking over the bodies of Charlie’s friends and using them to kill. Soon Charlie is the only one remaining, but the demon has special plans for him, and soon it will reveal things about his lineage that Charlie will not want to hear. Can he defeat this evil creature, or will the demon’s dark powers consume him too?
People who decide that they are going to go out and make a horror movie with their friends are usually dedicated fans of the genre, people who have seen all the great works by the great directors. In fact, they have probably seen movies like Dawn of the Dead
and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
dozens, if not possibly hundreds of times. Their DVD shelf is filled with Blue Underground and Anchor Bay releases of movies by Romero, Argento and Fulci, not to mention an entire series of Paramount Friday the 13th
discs. They've probably listened to most of the commentaries on them and watched most of the making-of documentaries. With this body of knowledge, said fans go out and make their own movie...and it usually stinks. Even worse, it usually gets terrible distribution that ends up costing the filmmaker more money than he makes. Which is why the IMDb is littered with the names of people of who direct one crappy horror movie and then never make another film ever again. People like George L. Ortiz, director of House of the Demon
In all fairness to Ortiz, his film was made in 2007 and it's only 2010, and since he is still in his 30’s it is quite premature to declare that his filmmaking career is dead forever. But the signs don't look good, because with House of the Demon
he makes almost all the same mistakes as so many other one non-hit wonders. More and more, watching movies like this one, I become convinced that low budget filmmakers about to embark on their own careers cannot limit their studies only to the classics. It's great to analyze Romero for his social commentary or Argento on his use of music, lighting and color, but unless an aspiring filmmaker also spends time examining films made by people like him with similar budget levels, then he is at very great risk of repeating so many common mistakes.
House of the Demon
is a classic example of a story that is beyond the talents of the people involved, told in a way that is beyond the technical capabilities at their disposal. Both the acting and writing are uniformly terrible. The characters are drawn with the broadest possible strokes - the unassuming hero who is haunted by something in his past, his loving girlfriend, and his obnoxious best friend who lives for partying, sex and pot. All of the performances are bad. Some are simply lifeless, while others are over the top to the point of hilarity. The synopsis on the back cover describes the film as a horror comedy, and there are moments of intentional humor, but I'm not convinced that this movie was meant originally to be a comedy. The intentionally humorous moments are often made that way by the use of post-production tricks, the most noticeable being a scene where the audio abruptly switches to cheesily dubbed Spanish with English subtitles, and we hear over the audio a couple of guys talking, one complaining about the other accidentally switching the DVD's audio track to Spanish! The scene then returns to English and the movie continues.
My assumption is that House of the Demon
was not meant to be a comedy when it was conceived and filmed (the Spanish audio gag was probably done to cover the fact that audio recording on that particular scene didn't come out right). The dialogue itself is rarely comedic and the performances play things straight. George Ortiz probably added the comedic elements after the movie was already wrapped, realizing just how poorly what he had made worked as a straight horror film.
Ortiz also runs into problems on the technical side of things, and I’m not simply referring to production mistakes caused by the low budget. With this film the director shows that he does not understand video as a shooting medium. The problem with video - and this is especially a problem when it comes to HD - is that video gives a different kind of reality than film. Film is manipulated reality. When we watch a movie shot on actual film there are all sorts of little things that consciously escape us that are caused by film, such as the shallow depth of field and the slight differences in motion caused by shooting at twenty-four frames per second. But video gives a sort of hyper-reality that usually provides too much information for a film that is being told in a conventional narrative style. To compensate, filmmakers have to learn how to make video look more like film, or find a different narrative style that is more suited to the aesthetic of video. The recent Paranormal Activity
is a good example of using a different narrative style in conjunction with video.
House of the Demon
fails as a movie because its creators didn’t know this. It fails not only because its acting and writing are too terrible to work as a conventional narrative, but also because its director, its editor and its cinematographer give it a flat, shallow, video look that is not atmospheric, scary or suspenseful. Rather it looks too often like a badly filmed soap opera or an unusually competent piece from a freshman in film school. They fail to disguise the movie’s digital, ultra low budget origins, and therefore the movie looks like exactly what it is – a terrible, amateurish work from a director who spends too much time ripping off The Evil Dead
and not enough time honing his craft.
Celebrity Video presents House of the Demon
letterboxed at 1.78:1 and enhanced for 16x9 displays. Overall quality is about what you'd expect from a movie like this. The biggest sin of this presentation is its inconsistency. Daylight exteriors look fine, with a clear, sharp image and accurate colors. The problems only begin when the action moves indoors or night falls. Nighttime and interior shots are wildly inconsistent, with uneven flesh tones, murky shadow detail, black levels that veer from inky dark to gray and an almost obscene amount of video noise, covering many shots in a layer of incomprehensible grain.
The film is given a 2.0 Stereo mix, and audio quality is inconsistent but mostly acceptable. About seventy percent of the sound recording sounds clear and intelligible, while the other thirty percent sounds muffled or is mixed too quietly. There are some minor problems with audio distortion or ambient noise caused by poor quality microphones. Sound levels in general are low. I had to turn the volume way up, so much so that when I turned off the DVD player I was bombarded by painfully loud noise from the cable channel I had been watching beforehand.
Extras are fairly sparse on this release, but some attempt at having a decent special edition was clearly made when this disc was put together. The most notable extras are a drab alternate beginning to the film (showing the old Satanist talking to a young child in Halloween costume), four minutes of rather entertaining outtakes, and three and a half minutes of behind-the-scenes stunts and special effects footage.
Interestingly enough, George Ortiz has claimed that the house they were shooting in was haunted, and that the cast and crew often heard noises, and felt chills and the sensation that they were being watched. The next extra is a snippet of video footage that supposedly captured a mysterious voice. We see George Ortiz preparing for a shot when a dark and sinister laugh is heard in the background. Despite being a believer in the supernatural, I remain unconvinced by this particular clip.
Also included as an extra is an alternate scene of the Joe character grappling with the demon and a badly cut promotional trailer.
The box art declares that this is part of the “Horrific Film Fest Collection” and that it is “1 of 3 movies to scream about”. A quick look at the Celebrity Video Distribution website reveals that, although they have released numerous horror movies, this one is the only one labeled as being part of that collection, which makes me assume that the other two movies are a promise (or perhaps a threat) they are still working to deliver.
I cannot recommend House of the Demon
as a movie, nor can I give particularly high marks to the technical quality of the DVD. And yet I will give it a recommendation, the same recommendation that I will now start giving to other movies of its caliber. If you are a horror fan who is raising money to make a movie of his or her own, don’t watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
tonight. Watch this movie and get a cheap education on how not to make yours.
Movie – D-
Image Quality – C-
Sound – C
Supplements – B-
- Running Time – 1 hour 21 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English 2.0 Stereo
- Alternate beginning
- Behind the scenes special effects and make-up footage
- Supernatural voice footage
- Alternate scene
- Promotional trailer