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Judge Bill Gibron • Location: Tampa, FL
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Journey Back in Time
November 21st, 2006 2:34PM

It's been relatively quite over the last few weeks here at the blog, and with fairly good reason. As the end of the year starts peering over the shoulder of the preemptive holiday season, obligations and added responsibilities have kept yours truly out of the local Cineplex. Granted, there really isn't much out there worth gravitating toward (dancing CGI penguins? Computer generated British rats? Another heralded helping of some spy named Bond?). While my personal jury is still out on Casino Royale (I am already quite hype-shy thanks to the one-two punch of The Descent and Borat this year) I may be willing to give this reinvented 007 a shot. All grousing aside, I do enjoy a big budget shoot-em up, and the trailer presented before that so called Kazakhstan comedy 'masterpiece' made the espionage exposition look like as much fun as the explosions. Still, the purpose of this project was to reconnect with the theater going experience. So this time, I left my stack of Academy screeners on the shelf and decided to check out the intriguing outsider horror festival 8 Films to Die For.

What followed was a laundry list of weirdness, missteps and movie going misery that I hadn't experienced ever in the previous six months of this experiment. A little background – we live within two miles of a pair of perfectly decent theaters. On one end is an AMC Megaplex connected to a local high-end mall. It's an immaculately clean, stadium seat loaded example of the nu-entertainment ideal. More like sitting in your living room than spending an evening at the cinema, it represents the typical experience almost everyone has who heads to the theater. But if you travel south the same distance, you run into a slapdash strip center called the Britton Plaza, and its fish out of water facility The Britton 8. Even more backstory – this is the theater that my wife and I saw our first film in together as a couple…which was Halloween, by the way. Yep, since 1979, this small movie house (which converted its one big screen into three, and then the aforementioned octet) has been a local favorite, a reminder of high school double dates and a city long gone from the backwater Florida map.

Imagine my surprise when I entered the facility to see that, in over 28 years, nothing much had really changed. The lobby was still a surreal combination of old fashioned snack bar (complete with popcorn, candy, and…Nutty Bavarian sweetened almonds???) and pre-war tiled bathrooms (purposefully decorated to accentuate Tampa's historic Hispanic heritage). Cracked flooring, stained from thousands of dirty feet, was dull and dingy while the less than contemporary video games sat stoically next to, of all things, a sticker machine. Back when the three screens went 4x4, the Britton took its balcony and converted it into a pair of mini-theaters. The last film I saw in one was Army of Darkness, and I swear I sat there in fear for my life. Nothing is more disconcerting that feeling perched directly over the top of another audience as they laugh and/or shriek along to the feature film below. I imagined that, at any moment, the Britton's second story screens could come crashing down, giving a new meaning to that old '70s in theater gimmick, Sensurround.

I kind of dug the retro feel of the theater, and walked up to the disengaged employee behind the counter (all she required was a mouth full of gum and a finger full of twirled hair to make the cliché complete). I asked for two tickets to the "8 Films to Die For Horror Festival" and I got one of those blank stares that suggested that I was a flatulating butthead. After a subtle scoff, I had my stubs and headed to the last theater on the right. Avoiding massive carpet stains strewn haphazardly down the hall, more than a few resembling the marks left by horses after they uncork their bladder and really let one fly, my wife and I found "Theater 4" and walked in.

The shock was unsettling. Old fashioned hard backed chairs with minimal helpful hinder cushioning. Row after row of bent and broken hand rests. In one seat, somewhere toward the back, what looked like a mummy or a recently reanimated corpse sat sitting, staring blindly at the screen only the occasional movement of its skeleton arm to check the time suggesting any life whatsoever. My first thought was that After Dark, in an obvious attempt to mimic the late great motion picture pitchman William Castle, had hired an actual ghoul to be part of the presentation – kind of like "atmosphere". Ew! Anyway, we found a couple of decent seats in the back, settled in, and hoped that the paranormal patron in front of us had already had its "feeding" for the day.

As the arcane ads for local businesses we'd never heard of played out on a dirty, dilapidated screen, a couple of beefy buffoons came in. High school age, and obviously playing hooky so they could see a really good gorefest, the pair plugged their pieholes with white cherry Icees and popcorn, engaging in a insular conversation loaded with self-serving slang and plenty of private jokes. As they giggled and gorged, the lights came down, and I settled in for a collection of (hopefully) competent genre shorts. As if you haven't guessed by now, I was COMPLETELY off base about what the whole After Dark movie marathon ideal was driving at, and I must admit, it was all my fault. Instead of reading about the anthology each and every time my cursor accidentally triggered the roaring shriek soundclip on that annoying web ad that's been clogging up sites for weeks, I merely cursed the company out loud, promised myself I would be more careful with the mouse, and moved on. Had I taken a moment to play caveat emptor, I would have discovered the truth behind these "too intense" for the mainstream motion pictures.

You see, 8 Films to Die For are actually EIGHT FULL LENGTH FILMS (I know, I hear the "D'uhs" – shut up!). Instead of seeing a collection of horror shorts, my wife and I got to witness one of the "audience favorites" that had been selected over the weekend. See, After Dark required audience to buy eight tickets to see all eight films, and then apparently used its website to rank the offerings. On Monday and Tuesday (11/20 and 11/21), the "best" were given the ever-popular 'encore' treatment. Today's tasty movie morsel was Unrest, a haunted hospital hackjob that was so unbelievably boring that I thought I was watching The Omen remake again. The plot was superficial and silly: a new med student swears she can "feel" the spirit of her classroom cadaver. Through a series of coincidences and standard horror happenstance, she learns the dead body is that of a female serial killer who "won't rest" until her anatomy lesson torso is put to rest.

Within this paltry premise, we get lots of shots of F/X driven vivisection, a couple of completely false scares, and your typical parade of problematic personalities, including the goofy jock and the sensitive foreigner. Director Jason Todd Ipson, who doesn't deserve to use three names, obviously thinks that he's creating something completely brilliant here. His ponderous use of pauses and long, languid tracking shots lack the gravitas he hopes to gain, and a few of this narrative flourishes (a huge tank of formaldehyde where corpses are kept like tacky tropical fish – huh?) ring ridiculous and false. But Unrest's biggest problem is that it's just not scary. Ipson has a way with mood, and there is a nice level of dread dispensed throughout the movie, but the tone is so tenuous, and the logic leaps so extreme, that we barely get our bearings before the movie goes ludicrous, lunging in a whole different direction. By the end, we could care less who lives and who dies. We just keep hoping that the film itself will seize up and stop unspooling.

Again, if this is the example of 8 Films' best, what did their worst look like? Some might suggest that my negative reaction comes straight from having my short films expectations dashed, but once I realized that Unrest was going to be the slim cinematic pickings for the entire two hour running time, I settled in and prepared to be terrified. Frankly, the surroundings, and that elderly "thing" a few rows away were much more frightening than anything onscreen. Truth be told, The Britton would have been a great place to see Saw III. The green and brown optical design scheme used to suggest rot and decay in the film is inherent in every splotch on the theater's walls. One could easily imagine that odd old bat sitting up, pulling off her expressionless wrinkle-filled face, to reveal Tobin Bell smiling out from underneath. It would be the perfect marriage of substance and setting.

The other seven titles – which can be previewed on After Dark's site – don’t seem much better, and frankly, it's hard to see how they could be. Indie horror is going through some incredibly hard times right now, with very little new and inventive coming out of the category. Far too fan-driven and reliant of referencing (better) films from the past, your standard new millennium macabre is a collection of homages and hobbles. Perhaps filmic fate was smiling down on me when I entered that former entertainment stomping ground. I got a nice, noxious case of dreary déjà vu, and I only had to stomach one of the supposedly great eight. Sitting through something like Unrest seven more times would have indeed been something to die for. And as much as I consider the concept, spending my last day on Earth watching lame scary movies is not how I envisioned my death. Eaten by some squirrels, on the other hand…

Unrest1.5 out of 5

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