Monday, April 26, 2010

Tales from just BEFORE the grave

Alien Zone (aka "House of the Dead" and "Zone of the Dead") (1978)
Starring: John Ericson, Ivor Francis, Charles Aidman, Bernard Fox, Richard Gates, Judith Novgrod, and Burr DeBenning
Director: Sharron Miller
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A filandering salesman (Ericson) loses his way back to his hotel and seeks shelter from a rainstorm in a rundown funeral home. The mortician (Francis) tells him the strange tales of how four of his "costumers" came to be in their coffins.

"House of the Dead" is structured like the better-known horror anthologies from the British production house Amicus. The movie consists of four short horror films and a framing device which is itself is a horror short. Like virtually every anthology film ever made, what we have here is mixed bag, ranging from pretty good to inoffensively plain. The shorts are somewhat more mystifying than what these films usually present, and the frame is not as creepy and/or ironic in its conclusion as I think the filmmakers may have believed, but it's decent enough.

As for the four stories, they start weak and get much better as the film progresses. The first two entries--one that sees a child-hating teacher (Novgrod) through the worst night of her life, and a mystifying little tale of a serial killer (DeBenning) who records his murders on a film camera--are unremarkable but inoffensive. They don't present any scares or decent laughs, but they are both short enough that you won't get bored before they reach their humdrum conclusions.

As for the four stories, the best of the lot is the one where a coldhearted, snobbish office-worker (Gates) finds himself trapped by an unseen person in a house of horrors; if there's any bit of film that may have served as a precursor for "Cube" or "Saw" films, it's this one. The second best deals with a pair of rival criminologists (Aidman and Fox), each of whom consider themselves to be the best in the world... and each of whom intend to see their rivalry ended in a most permanent fashion. Both of these tales hold some genuine chills, and they will also inspire chuckles in the audience as irony asserts itself in their closing moments.

If you like anthology films, I think you'll enjoy this one. It's no "From Beyond the Grave" or "Creepshow", but it's not bad.

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