DVDanger: A Bad Case of the Sequels

Retreads, remakes, and do-overs rule the home releases

Last week, indie film producer Keith Calder took to Twitter to ask, "What's the most recent wide-release, non-platformed horror film that wasn't a remake, a sequel, or a Blumhouse production?" Sometimes, it feels like he may as well have asked the same question about home releases.

"OK, so here's the basement, we split utilities, oh, and we try to keep poltergeist activity to the weekends." Home hassles in The Pact 2.

The Pact 2 is, as the title implies, simply a sequel to 2012's The Pact, which combined family secrets, serial killers, and ghostly possession to surprising efficacy. This follow-up starts in the bloody debris of the first – quite literally, with trauma scene cleanup professional June (True Blood's Camilla Luddington) pulling blood and brain matter out of a wall. The original film was set primarily in that one location, the Judas Killer's family home, but that's soon left behind as a copy-cat starts emulating his m.o. It's quickly revealed that June is actually the daughter of one of his original victims, which is news to her. Moreover, she's quickly distracted by the bloody visions plaguing her dreams and the malevolent, unseen force that has suddenly decided to occupy her home.

Series creator Nicholas McCarthy steps aside for his follow-up, handing the reins to co-directors Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath. They're a solid choice, building on the psychological horror of their debut Entrance, and creating a sequel that will both appeal to fans of the original, while not getting caught up in details from the first film. Luddington conveys a kind of brittleness reminiscent of Angela Bettis, and it helps that June has the intelligence generally lacking from straight-to-video heroines. Once realizing that she's bound by blood to the events of the first film, she does the sensible thing and calls the survivors of the original for help. There's a sense of real continuity here, with Arrow's Caity Lotz reprising her role as final girl Annie.

"Get me out! In fact, get all of us out!" Toolbox Murders 2 is the bent, blunt plastic screwdriver of the franchise.

The Pact 2 will make people want to see the original. It's hard to say the same about Toolbox Murders 2, which manages the double whammy of being both a sequel and a remake. Well, ish. 1978's The Toolbox Murders was a second-tier exploitation classic, beloved of B-movie fans but scarcely known to most. In 2004, Tobe Hooper took the bones of the original (a deranged killer targeting the residents of an apartment complex) and turned it into a full-blown monster-slasher flick called Toolbox Murders. He added a monstrous killer called Coffin Baby and an occult subtext, plus a memorable turn from Bettis, and the horror community saw it as a promising return to form for the maestro.

Thank goodness neither Hooper nor Bettis has anything to do with the sloppy mess that is Toolbox Murders 2. The worst film of the franchise, it's a half-conceived gorefest that has been bounced from pillar to bloody post, and finally emerges in the US after years of litigation between the producers and director Dean C. Jones, resulting in an unsanctioned alternate cut called simply called Coffin Baby.

Now all that mess has been resolved, and the official Toolbox Murders 2 has finally escaped. Not that there's too much to celebrate. Samantha (Chauntal Lewis), sister to one of Coffin Baby's original victims, is kidnapped by the killer and brought to his chamber of horrors. He brutalizes her, then starts bringing other victims in to butcher in front of her. Repeat for 95 minutes, or until creeping tedium lulls you to sleep.

The term torture porn is often thrown at titles like this, but this is really torture Ambien. Jones has built a stellar reputation as a practical FX expert, but this lacks the cerebral sleaze shocks of The House With 100 Eyes, the oddball creativity of The Voices, or even the low-budget ammorality of Unearthed's Collar, or the madcap funhouse feel of a House of 1000 Corpses

The original baghead strikes again in the meta-slasher semi-sequel The Town That Dreaded Sundown

Defining what The Town That Dreaded Sundown is may be more of a challenge than seems immediately clear. At its simplest level, it's a sequel to drive-in genius Charles B. Pierce's 1976 true-life slasher flick (also, just to confuse matters, called The Town That Dreaded Sundown). The original took the form of a reenactment of the infamous Moonlight Murders, a bizarre series of slayings that plagued Texarkana in the summer of 1946. They ended as spontaneously as they began, and the killer (dubbed the Phantom Killer) was never apprehended.

This Blumhouse-released 2014 follow-up, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon continues the story in a purposefully obtuse but innovative fashion. It happens in a world in which the original killings took place, but as portrayed in the 1976 film. At the same time, everyone knows the film: it's screened every Halloween in the town square of Texarkana. So when a copycat killer seems set to reenact those original grisly killings, it's as much a strange homage to Pierce's quasi-classic as it is to the original murderer. It's going to be up to high schooler Jami (Addison Timlin, Love and Air Sex) to evade last-girl syndrome and solve the multi-layered mystery.

The follow-up lacks the unique queasiness of the original. Pierce may not be in the upper echelons of American directors, but his pioneering indie spirit was borne of an almost inadvertent experimentation. However, this rather bizarre creation from the people that brought you Glee and American Horror Story (Gomez-Rejon, scripter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, and producer Ryan Murphy) is at least intriguing in its attempt to blend reality and text. Even AHS regular Denis O'Hare turns up as Charles Pierce Jr., the director's son and greatest proponent of Moonlight Murder conspiracy theories. The end result is fairly successful as a flashback slasher. Yet the melding of real and fantasy (with some unashamed nods to the Scream franchise) creates a surprisingly cerebral concoction. Add in some purposefully hilarious turns by Anthony Anderson and Gary Cole as the most subtextually savvy law enforcement in cinema and, like Pierce's original, it's an aspirational Z-movie that will withstand multiple rewatchings.

Lee Marvin, the coolest part of 1964's The Killers

While The Town is both an adaptation and a remake, Criterion's new collection of the The Killers contains both an adaptation and its remake. Here's the history: In 1927, Ernest Hemingway wrote a short story about two men who walk into a diner and coolly announce that they are there to kill a man known only as the Swede. When their victim is informed of his imminent demise, he basically shrugs and accepts his fate. The author left everything else an enigma, a tabula rasa onto which the audience must write their own meanings. In 1946, rising noir talent Robert Siodmak directed the first adaptation, and gave his own solution to the mystery. Hemingway's short story comprises only the first 10 minutes or so, before becoming a detective story. Insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O'Brien) tries to unfurl the mystery of why unnamed forces wanted this washed-up boxer (played with broken gravitas by Burt Lancaster) dead.

Move to 1964, and the second feature version of the tale, as helmed by Don Siegel. This time, it's not the cops looking to put someone away, but the killers themselves hunting for the truth. In the original, they were trench-coated hoodlums. This time around, they're cool, shades-wearing slimebags, played by Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager. When they find the Swede (John Cassavetes) and gun him down, it's Marvin's character who wonders why the pieces don't fit together.

Watched back-to-back, the pair make a fascinating juxtaposition. Both rely on flashbacks to fill in Hemingway's intentional blanks, but it's quickly clear that Siegel is creating a loose remake of Siodmak's interpretation. Nothing of the text is left: even the iconic diner scene is replaced by the pair leaving a bloody trail through a school for the blind. Of course, both depend on the tropes of the crime thriller genre: double crosses, heists, missing money, and a femme fatale (Ava Gardner transmuting 18 years later into Angie Dickinson). What's fascinating is that what each does best is the weakness of the other. Reardon is a little too clean cut of a good guy, while Dickinson and Cassavetes lack any fire or frisson. By contrast, Gardner and Lancaster smolder as treacheries mount, while Marvin and Gulager are the epitome of the amoral hitman, reservoir dogs from a time when Quentin Tarantino was barely a pup.

Interestingly, Criterion includes the only adaptation that is true to Hemingway's story. In 1956, future leviathan of Russian cinema Andrei Tarkovsky created a 19 minute student film that kept only the metaphorical mystery. Fitting stuff for the man that would dedicate his career to literary meditations on the human condition like Stalker and Solaris.

Uncomfortable closeness in Reckless, a remake of British kidnap drama The Disappearance of Alice Creed

A much more straight-forward remake is Reckless, a do-over of 2009 British crime drama The Disappearance of Alice Creed. In the original, millionaire's daughter Alice (Gemma Arterton) is kidnapped by two men (Eddie Marsan, and Martin Compston). For his version, director Joram Lürsen transfers the action to the Netherlands, but retains this three-hander nature of the drama. This time, it's Laura (Sarah Chronis) abducted by younger Rico (Marwan Kenzari) and old hand Victor (Tygo Gernandt).

While Siegel abandoned Siodmak and Hemingway's opening for something more stylized and disturbing, Lürsen emulates J Blakeson's quick-fire editing and sense of dire menace. The opening sequence, as Rico and Victor construct the perfect place to hide a victim, is almost shot-for-shot. No reason to change what's not broken, because that's one of the finest scenes in both films. Nor does Lürsen back away from the original's cold-blooded depiction of the practicalities of the crime, such as bathroom breaks.

However, as the inevitable duplicity and sexual subtext begins to engulf all three (how can it not?), Lürsen seems to find his characters more sympathetic than Blakeson, and that is oddly problematic. He even needlessly tacks on a coda that takes some of the moral ambiguity out of the original's open-ended ambiguity. Plus, while the cast is more than capable, and first-time viewers will never know this, his version lacks the original's ace in the hole: the normally hangdog Marsan in an atypically violent role brings an air of unpredictability and malice that Gernandt never quite reaches.

However, he catches the original's sense of moral squalor. No one here is beyond reproach, and while Alice/Laura does not deserve any of what happens to her, it's not exactly like she's a stainless innocent either. Like the best noir, Reckless understands that it's not about the bad guys losing, it's about the least bad guys surviving.

Natalie Burns, the best – but sadly not the biggest – part of Awaken

Not every release depends on a previous creation to hang upon, but some still feel like they do. Take Awaken. It's growth for director Mark Atkins, mockbuster auteur of Snakes on a Train, Transmorphers: Fall of Man, and Princess of Mars. How prolific is he? He's already finished his Fury Road pastiche Road Wars. Odd as it may sound, Awaken feels like someone hired him to produce a low-budget rip-off of all those early low-budget Jean-Claude van Damme action flicks. Instead, he's pulled together a fun enough fusion of the organ harvesting and hunting humans genres.

Billie (Russian ballet dancer-turned-writer-actress Natalie Burns) wakes up on a desert island after asking one too many questions about her missing sister. She quickly finds herself in a surprisingly complicated plot involving kidnapping, stress tests, and Daryl Hannah as a heartless millionaire looking for replacement parts for her ailing daughter.

There's no new ground being broken here, and the presence of Vinnie Jones as a knife-wielding sociopath only reinforces the suspicion that this is an unofficial sequel to The Condemned. Weirdly, its biggest problem is that Burns (even though she wrote the script) is given too little screen time, and clearly needs to be given more fight sequences. Any straight-to-video action directors looking for a female lead with a judo background, you may want to check this out.

The Pact 2 (IFC Midnight), The Killers (Criterion), The Town That Dreaded Sundown (Image), and Reckless (Artsploitation) are available on DVD and Blu-ray now.

Awaken (Arc Entertainment) is out on DVD now.

Toolbox Murders 2 (Scream! Factory) will be released Aug. 4.

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DVD Watch, DVDanger, Blumhouse, Scream! Factory, IFC Midnight, Criterion, Image Entertainment, Artsploitation, Awaken, The Killers, The Pact 2, Reckless, Toolbox Murders 2, The Town That Dreaded Sundown

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