Review: Blacula (1972)

Blacula

I’m not even going to beat around the bush. Blacula is awesome on so many levels that I can’t believe it’s taken me 42 years to see it.

I tried so hard to wait for the upcoming Scream Factory Blu-Ray release of Blacula and Scream, Blacula, Scream but the street date isn’t until sometime in February so I relied upon my backup recorded from TCM.

The story’s pretty basic. In the late 18th century, Prince Mamuwalde (William H. Marshall) seeks Dracula’s help in stopping the slave trade. Dracula turns him into a vampire (hence the name Blacula) and imprisons Mamuwalde’s wife in the room to die as she looks upon his coffin.

Two hundred years later, interior designers purchase items from Dracula’s castle and ship them to Los Angeles. One of those items is the coffin containing Blacula, who, once released, begins to leave a trail of bodies and turned vampires in his wake as he woos Tina (Vonetta McGee), a dead ringer for Mamuwalde’s wife.

Again, the vampire story’s pretty standard. But the execution? A thing of joy.

Blacula wastes no time in telling its tale. Almost immediately, and without suspicion, Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala, who played the dad in several episodes of What’s Happening?) knows something’s amiss and it doesn’t take him much longer to pin the blame on vampire attacks. Tina becomes enamored of Blacula rather quickly, even after he blatantly lays out who he is and she doesn’t bat an eye. Finally, there’s the pursuit of Blacula by Thomas and the authorities (also in a hurry to jump on the vampire bandwagon) that includes a multi-vampire attack in a warehouse where a random open box filled with kerosene lamps provides an array of handy available weapons.

Underneath it all, Blacula is really a love story with Mamuwalde’s pursuit of Tina acting as the main spine of the story. The vampire aspect of the story is just gravy, but a tasty one at that. In fact, modern day stories of the undead could use a lesson about pacing from Blacula. Get in and get out. There’s no need to linger.

While watching Blacula, I couldn’t help thinking of The Strain, the FX series I reviewed this past summer. In it, several of the main characters (including Eph, the one we’re supposed to identify most with) just can’t seem to wrap their heads around the fact that people are being transformed into vampires by a virus. It takes them forever to catch on to anything and, as a result, the show sometimes seems sluggish. Not so with Blacula–they know that vampires walk and will do anything to stop them.

Blacula arrived near the beginning of the 70s “blaxpoitation” craze and is completely a product of that era. There are slick talking guys, one with the name of Skillet (Ji-Tu Cumbuka, who I remember fondly from a very short lived 1979 series entitled A Man Called Sloane where he played Torque) that provide comic relief. Afros? Check, especially on Tina’s sister, Michelle (Denise Nicholas, Room 222). What about an appearance from a musical act on the film’s soundtrack that lasts much longer than it should? Yes–the Hues Corporation, best known for their #1 1974 hit “Rock The Boat”, are here as well performing two of their songs.

Blacula has it all. There’s nothing you won’t love about the film and I highly recommend purchasing the Blu-Ray upon its release in February. Scream Factory usually includes some cool extras on it, but even if the disc is sparse, the film’s content alone is worth the price!

Blacula grade: A

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Review: Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

mr sardonicus

Sir Robert (Ronald Lewis, who resembles a cross between David Hasselhoff and Kevin Kline), a renowned English physician, is summoned to the castle of Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe, Andre Toulon in several of the Puppet Master films) at the behest of Sardonicus’ wife–and Sir Robert’s ex-lover, Maude (Audrey Dalton)–to cure the Baron of a mysterious ailment.

Sardonicus informs Sir Robert that he wasn’t always a Baron. In fact, he once went by the name Marek Toleslawski, a farmer by trade like his father before him. Prior to his death, the elder Toleslawski purchases a lottery ticket which is accidentally buried with him. Unfortunately, it also turns out to be a winner and a vast fortune awaits Marek. To placate his wife, Marek resorts to what he believes to be the most reprehensible of acts in order to retrieve the ticket.

“And so that night, Sir Robert, I became a profaner of the dead, a robber of graves…a ghoul.”

The act has such a profound effect on Marek that it warps him, both physically and psychologically. He hopes that Sir Robert’s methods can help, or else Maude might just suffer the same fate.

Directed by cinema’s master of gimmicks, William Castle, Mr. Sardonicus reportedly had two different endings–one where Sardonicus was further punished for his atrocities and another where the character was shown a merciful fate. Members of the audience were given glow in the dark cards which allowed them to vote “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” and the theater played the corresponding ending. Rumor had it that only one ending was filmed and, this being a horror movie, you can probably guess which one that was.

Mr. Sardonicus, like The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill, and all of Castle’s other movies, is a ton of fun to watch and one that I wish I could have seen in the theater upon its release. Most people want to travel back in time to change some historical event. Me? I want to go back to a time when there was a certain sense of innocence in the cinema, when going to the theater was an event and you felt more a part of the audience than isolated from them.

As a horror film, Mr. Sardonicus is very reminiscent of the macabre tales you would find in something like The Twilight Zone or Thriller, but that suits me just fine so if you’re a fan of the stories provided in those series, you’ll love this film. However, if those series never grabbed you, Castle’s solid direction, the film’s beautiful set design, and the stellar performances make Mr. Sardonicus a winner.

Mr. Sardonicus grade: B+

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Review: Doc of the Dead (2014)

Doc Dead

Since my last two entries–World War Z and The Walking Dead episode “Strangers“–have been about zombies, it’s only fitting to include a documentary about the genre as part of my movie marathon.

Doc of the Dead takes a look at the history of the zombie and its inclusion in pop culture. From its origins in places like Haiti (where the definition of what a zombie is is far different than that of a modern reference) all the way up to today’s cinematic, television, novel, and video game interpretations, this particular brand of undead monster has enjoyed various degrees of popularity over the years.

Zombies were probably first represented onscreen with 1932’s White Zombie, but it wasn’t until George Romero put a new spin on the zombie mythology with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead that people really started taking notice.

This was a different type of zombie–one that shambles, yes, but one that also consumes the flesh of humans–that was more terrifying than anything anyone had seen in the past.

Through interviews conducted with both the creators of zombie pop culture (such as Romero, Robert Kirkman, Max Brooks and more) as well as the everyday “consumers” of the craze that take part in things like the Zombie Walk and horror conventions, Doc of the Dead is by no means a comprehensive look at the genre, but it is an entertaining documentary that does touch upon a large part of our fascination with the undead. It’s a little shy on film clips, but it does include fun aspects of the zombie craze like information on surviving a zombie apocalypse and events that allow one to experience a zombie attack.

Doc of the Dead can currently be seen on both Netflix and Amazon streaming. At a running time of about 81 minutes, it’s definitely worth a look–especially as a lighthearted bit of entertainment before bed following a night of gore infested zombie movies.

Doc of the Dead grade: B

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Review: The Walking Dead – “Strangers” S05,E02

WD2

“Nowadays, people are just as dangerous as the dead, don’t you think?”–Gabriel

“No. People are worse.”–Darryl

I’ve been reading Image Comics’ The Walking Dead on a regular basis since issue #12. The great thing about having read it so far back is that I’ve forgotten a lot of events, which makes watching everything on the show unfold a pleasant surprise each week.

“Strangers” brought up a major plot line that had completely slipped my mind altogether–something that didn’t happen until the end of the episode, but we’ll get to that. And rest assured that I won’t issue any spoilers beyond this for two reasons: 1) I really can’t recall exactly how everything in the comic unfolded, and 2) the TV show has deviated from several storylines since the beginning so there’s no telling what will come after this anyway.

Written by creator Robert Kirkman, “Strangers” allows us a breather for the group to catch up with one another. Carol and Rick, Shasha and Bob (who are an item), Carl and Rick, and even Maggie and Tara (the latter of whom explains who she is and what role she played at the prison) are among the many who have conversations about the past, trying to put it behind them but realizing that these are the events that made them who they are now.

According to a rousing speech given by Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) later in the episode, they are “survivors”. Though that brings a smile to their faces, Abraham wonders if that’s all they want–to do the same thing everyday, struggling to just get by instead of going to Washington in an attempt to find a cure and change the future.

WD1

Rick (Andrew Lincoln), who just led a group to scavenge supplies from a local food bank suggested by Gabriel (Seth Gilliam)–a priest they rescued from walkers–realizes that their current method of just surviving is dangerous. During the expedition, two members of the group were almost lost. Gabriel runs from a female walker that is later revealed to be his wife (or at least it seemed so based on the way he looks at a picture of him and the woman near the episode’s climax) and Bob gets yanked under the watery basement by a skeletal walker before he pops up again, completely fine.

Or is he?

There’s a look on Bob’s face that alludes to something more happening under that water that we weren’t privy to. Later, he wants one more kiss from Sasha before he steps outside the church and starts to cry, further indicating that something is amiss. Finally, he’s knocked unconscious by an assailant that turns out to be someone from Terminus and we discover this because he wakes up to Gareth explaining to Bob that they have no home and are now hunters.

And they’re hungry.

Bob’s leg has been amputated by the Terminus survivors and his flesh is being roasted on an open fire. Gareth tells him that he tastes better than they thought.

“Strangers” is a really strong episode with a lot going on, even though it’s more subdued for the majority of the hour. In addition to the multiple plotlines listed above, Darryl (Norman Reedus) gets a glimpse of the car that abducted Beth last season so he and Carol (Melissa McBride) hop into a car they discover along the road and follow them*. Kirkman successfully weaves several stories together, linking them with events in the past but using everything to move the overall arc forward. Furthermore, his tightly plotted script allows many different characters to shine, bringing out more of the personalities of people like Sasha and Bob without sacrificing tense action sequences.

*I was wondering when Darryl (or Maggie or anyone, for that matter) would bring up Beth. Seems like mentioning what happened to her might be a little important. That was the one flaw of the early part of the episode.

So far, The Walking Dead has started off with a bang. Both episodes have combined to form an amazing entry into the fifth season and I really hope it can sustain the momentum going forward. The first two episodes are a really solid indication that it will.

Now for the big question: Does anyone think Bob was bitten and infected when he was pulled underneath the water? If so, how sweet would that karma be in regard to the Terminus group?

The Walking Dead – “Strangers” grade: A-

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Review: World War Z (2013)

WWZ

Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a former UN investigator, is tapped by his old agency to discover the cause of a sudden zombie pandemic that threatens to wipe out all life on earth. While his family is safe aboard an aircraft carrier, Lane trots around the globe in search of either a cure or a way to defeat the zombies.

I’ve never been a huge fan of films featuring running zombies (Return of the Living Dead being a notable exception), mostly because it seems illogical that a reanimated corpse would be able to move that quickly. You would think that they would be in a constant state of decay and motor skills would deteriorate over time. Also, zombies that shamble in large groups seem more terrifying somehow because if you can’t escape them by running away, you probably should just give up.

Basically, the templates for any zombie film should exist from Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead.

My affinity for slow moving zombies (along with the fact that the film version of World War Z varies greatly from the story in Max Brooks’ 2006 novel) probably kept me from seeing it in theaters. Also, it wasn’t really marketed as a zombie film. As I recall, it seemed more like an action-adventure film rather than a genre movie.

I’m actually sorry I missed it on the big screen because World War Z is a rollicking good time. The story (credited to Matthew Michael Carnahan, J Michael Straczynski, Drew Goddard, and Damon Lindelof) is an original take on the zombie genre and superbly directed by Marc Forster.

World War Z doesn’t waste any time in the beginning, placing Lane and his family squarely in the thick of things within minutes. From there, it’s one escalating threat after another with the scenes in Jerusalem and on a plane being the most terrifying. The zombies move fast and furious, spreading the infection quickly, the bitten turning within seconds.

Just because World War Z is a really good time, doesn’t mean it’s without flaws, however. Though briskly paced, it does feel a little long at 2 hours (I saw the unrated version which does have approximately six minutes of extra footage) and probably could have used some editing to pare it down at least ten to fifteen minutes. In addition, while Lane’s character is perfectly suitable for the film’s adventures, he almost turns into an indestructible force at several points, surviving events people probably wouldn’t escape.

If you’re looking for a fun zombie film this Halloween and have exhausted all of your options in the genre, pick up World War Z. You won’t be disappointed.

World War Z grade: B+


World War Z (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD) (Blu-ray)

Director: Marc Forster
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz
Rating: PG-13 (Parental Guidance Suggested)

List Price: $39.99 USD
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Review: Death Bed-The Bed That Eats (1977)

Death Bed

I think the title is pretty self explanatory on this film. It’s literally about a bed that eats people, drawing them into the bed where yellow digestive juices dissolve their flesh. And the bed also has some sort of telekinetic powers. Oh, and there’s an artist once consumed by the bed that’s trapped behind a painting he once drew of it. People show up for various reasons and get eaten. The artist also remembers people in the past who were eaten by the bed.

This is truly a hungry bed. Here are some random scenes from Death Bed: The Bed That Eats.

That probably makes as much sense as the entire movie did and it’s about 75 minutes shorter.

Now I’m not going to tell you not to watch Death Bed: The Bed That Eats because if you never saw this film, you’d be doing yourself a tremendous disservice. It’s one of those movies that’s beyond terrible, a surrealistic nightmare on celluloid that will sit near the apex of any bad movie lover’s list. A nonsensical plot, wooden acting, low budget effects, and an abundance of goofiness are the ingredients for what turns out to be one of the worst movies of all time.

And, if you get a group to watch this on a late October weekend night while enjoying some libations, you might have the best time providing your own running commentary on how truly awful Death Bed: The Bed That Eats really is. Pair it with the equally bad The Undertaker and His Pals to really round out your evening.

In the meantime, enjoy comedian Patton Oswalt’s take on the movie.

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats grade: D-

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Review: The Hearse (1980)

The Hearse

“I’ll just tell them the truth flat out. Jane Hardy was on the edge…and she came back.”

In an attempt to regroup after the one-two punch of her mother’s death and a bad divorce, Jane Hardy (Trish Van Devere) decides to stay the summer in a country house she inherited from her late aunt. Shortly after moving in, she’s terrorized by a hearse, learns that locals believe her house to be haunted, and discovers deep, dark secrets about her aunt.

Wow. That trailer is actually pretty exciting. It makes The Hearse look like a lost horror classic and something I figured I’d been missing out on after all of these years. In fact, as the movie began, it reminded me slightly of an early 70s horror film called Let’s Scare Jessica To Death. In both films, the female protagonist had suffered some sort of mental breakdown and relocated to the country to recuperate. However, in Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, Zohra Lampert’s performance lends credence to the main character’s plight; in The Hearse, there’s very little indication Van Devere’s Jane is little more than an empty vessel, floating through life without a care in the world.

That’s only one of the many problems with this film.

The Hearse is “based on an idea” by Mark Tenser, but, apparently, that idea involved regurgitating cliches from other horror films of the past decade or so. They took a watered down “heroine” with mental issues (see above), added a car which may or may not be possessed (Duel, The Car), threw in some stuff about the devil and priestly guidance (The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror), and topped it off with the prospect of a ghostly presence (The Changeling). Did we forget anything? You know what? We need a potentially evil chauffeur (Burnt Offerings). That should do it.

Except it doesn’t. The Hearse is a complete mess of a film that goes nowhere. In fact, there’s really little or no mention of devil worshiping until an hour into the movie. And the townspeople who all bristle in horror when “the old Martin place” is mentioned are there only to do just that. Some you never see again. The ones that do pop up again, that you thought might play some part in the grand, evil plan? Nope. They don’t add anything either.

It’s almost as if the filmmakers were making this story up as they shot the movie. There’s no way a completed script could have resulted in this atrocity. One moment Jane has a terrifying (and I’m being really kind in that description) vision, then she just blows it off and forgets about it. She talks about being on the edge but we never really believe it because she rarely breaks down expect when the script calls for it–and that’s few and far between and comes much too late in the film.

There’s a fine line between making a film that’s enigmatic and suspenseful and making one that’s irritating and goofy. The Hearse not only strays away from that line, it runs full speed toward the latter of the two.

My advice? Watch any of the others I mentioned above (especially Let’s Scare Jessica To Death and The Car as a double feature or even the other 1980 far superior The Changeling) and let The Hearse rust.

The Hearse grade: D


Let's Scare Jessica to Death (DVD)

Director: John D. Hancock
Starring: Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O'Connor, Gretchen Corbett, Alan Manson
Rating: PG-13 (Parental Guidance Suggested)

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The Car (DVD)

Director: Elliot Silverstein
Starring: James Brolin
Rating: PG (Parental Guidance Suggested)

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The Changeling (DVD)

Starring: George C. Scott, Melvyn Douglas, Trish Van Devere
Rating: R (Restricted)

List Price: $5.98 USD
New From: $2.74 USD In Stock
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Review: The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Phantom carriage

“It’s a spooky place to wait for midnight–here among the dead.”

On New Year’s Eve, Sister Edit is dying of consumption and has one final wish–to speak with David Holm (Victor Sjostrom, who also directed), an abusive alcoholic who she’s been struggling to save for the past year. David refuses. Instead, he rings in the New Year in a cemetery with fellow drunkards and shares with them the legend of The Phantom Carriage.

According to David, the carriage’s purpose is to claim the soul of the last person to die at midnight before the new year. That soul must spend the entirety of the following year driving the carriage and claiming other souls on behalf of Death until relieved at the stroke of midnight the next New Year’s Eve. The previous year, his friend Georges, who originally told David about the legend and was responsible for leading David down the path of alcoholism, was the last to die. Now Georges has come for David, who was struck down and killed accidentally as the clock chimes for the final time and the new year approaches.

The Phantom Carriage was far ahead of its time both in its use of special effects and narrative devices. Told using flashbacks within flashbacks, the film begins with the inciting incident of Edit calling out for David followed by his refusal and subsequent death. However, the tale then uses ghostly images of David and Georges as the latter reminds him of his sinful life and the misery and misfortune he’s brought upon others. Divided into several chapters, the rest of the film delves into David’s history and the havoc he’s wreaked upon himself and those around him.

Any film buff will be thrilled with Criterion’s version of The Phantom Carriage, not only for the crisp transfer (which I watched only in the DVD version and not the Blu-Ray) and amazing extras, but also to see its influence on the medium.

Though the roots of The Phantom Carriage (based on the novel Korkarlen by Selma Lagerlof) can be traced back to Dickens’ similarly themed A Christmas Carol, it’s easy to see how it shaped other future works like It’s A Wonderful Life and even The Shining. In fact, there are entire sequences in both films that owe a huge debt to The Phantom Carriage in terms of character development and scene construction.

The Phantom Carriage is a silent film, so that might turn off some moviegoers. I admit that it took me a little longer to watch than most other films, but that’s mainly due to the short attention span I’ve cultivated in today’s fast paced world (thankfully, I was born before the internet age so I still can reach back and tap into the patience I once had in a slower era). However, this is a brilliant film with incredible performances and superb direction by Victor Sjostrom and deserves attention.

Perhaps many today wouldn’t consider The Phantom Carriage a true horror movie, but the supernatural element easily warrants its inclusion as a genre film. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. You’ll be amazed at the wonderful job Criterion has done with it, from the near flawless picture quality to the haunting score that accompanies it.

The Phantom Carriage grade: A


The Phantom Carriage (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)

Director: Arne Mattsson
Starring: Victor Sjöström, Hilda Borgström, Tore Svennberg, Astrid Holm, Concordia Selander
Rating: NR (Not Rated)

List Price: $39.95 USD
New From: $23.48 USD In Stock
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Review: Stake Land (2010)

Stake Land

“We live by his rules or we die. Or worse…we die and we come back.”

In a post apocalyptic America ravaged by a vampire plague, Mister (Stake Land co-writer Nick Damici, We Are What We Are, The Black Donnellys) rescues Martin (Connor Paolo, Gossip Girl, Revenge) after Martin’s parents were killed by a vampire. Mister takes Martin under his wing, acting like a father figure (albeit a distant one, emotionally) as both struggle to survive and make it to New Eden, a community rumored to be a safe haven from the undead.

In their travels, they meet up with people like Sister (Kelly McGillis, Top Gun, The Innkeepers), Willie (Sean Nelson, The Corner, Sisters), and Belle (Danielle Harris, Halloween, Hatchet II)–good people struggling to survive–as well as Jebedia (Michael Cerveris, Fringe, The Good Wife), an evil religious zealot seeking to kill Mister and anyone else refusing to follow him.

Stake Land landed in theaters a little less than a month before the first season premiere of The Walking Dead, another post apocalyptic tale with zombies instead of vampires, and I fear that it was overshadowed by the television series which arrived with a huge amount of name recognition thanks to the long running comic book series.

That’s too bad because, save for a weird twist near the end that kind of comes out of left field, Stake Land was far superior to at least the first (and one can even argue the second) season of the popular TV drama.

Under the direction of Jim Mickle (We Are What We Are), Stake Land nicely balances the quiet, tender moments of survivors just trying to find a ray of hope in a world gone mad with vampire attacks that are quick but also filled with intense dread. The acting is top notch and the story simply (and wisely) focuses on the characters’ journey and the struggle to maintain some semblance of humanity when others have lost theirs.

Stake Land is the first feature I’ve seen from Mickle, but it most certainly won’t be the last. If you’re looking for a really good coming of age story set against the backdrop of the apocalypse, make sure you give Stake Land a try. You won’t be disappointed.

Stake Land grade: B+


Stake Land [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)

Director: Jim Mickle
Starring: Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Kelly McGillis
Rating: R (Restricted)

List Price: $34.98 USD
New From: $10.99 USD In Stock
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Review: The Haunted Dollhouse (aka DevilDolls) (2012)

Haunted Dollhouse

I picked up a copy of The Haunted Dollhouse at the HorrorHound Convention back in 2013 and figured that, as I’d never seen it, the movie would be perfect for my 31 Days of Halloween horror movie marathon.

When I spied the copy sitting on the Full Moon table, I got excited. I grew up on Full Moon movies back in the 80s and 90s when they had a slate of entertaining films available on VHS. I worked my way through sci-fi classics like the Trancers series and then through the first three excellent Subspecies films and much of the highly imaginative Puppet Master movies. Now you’re telling me there’s a horror anthology from the same studio? Sold!

As I watched the first segment, entitled “The Protectors”, I felt something was a little…off. It didn’t make much sense and, save for images of a dollhouse over the opening credits, it had absolutely nothing to do with a dollhouse. The segment was extremely disjointed with thin characterization and shoddy storytelling.

So I decided to do a little research on the film and discovered that, while billed as an anthology, The Haunted Dollhouse is nothing more than recycled material from three old Full Moon films (Skull Heads, Dangerous Worry Dolls, and Dollman vs. Demonic Toys) edited down to half hour segments and repackaged as an anthology.

You know, I wouldn’t have been as angry if I just happened to pick up this film randomly somewhere, but I bought the fucking thing from Full Moon founder Charles Band himself! You might think that he’d have mentioned this important fact when I was making my purchase. Had he been honest, I might have even bought the three films instead of this one, which I stopped watching after the first godawful segment.

Whatever goodwill Full Moon had established with its fans should just be wiped away with the release of The Haunted Dollhouse as it’s just nothing more than a money grabbing opportunity. After seeing Ooga Booga–the latest Full Moon release (at least back in 2013)–and now this, I think I’ll just try to retain the fond memories I had for the studio back in its heyday instead of throwing money away on terrible, trashy films like these. Full Moon’s just not even trying anymore and that’s sad.

Fuck you Full Moon. You might have gotten my money for this one, but you won’t get my time.

The Haunted Dollhouse grade: F-

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