If I told you this was a direct-to-video thriller based on a book by Frank Peretti, you'd think Judge Bill Treadway hated it. And you'd be wrong.
Watch your locker. Watch your back. Watch your soul.
Attention: if you're tired of mind-numbing dreck like Bless the Child and Cold Creek Manor, in my hands I hold the cure: Hangman's Curse.
At first, the film seems ordinary. Stick with it and you will discover a genuinely scary thriller.
Despite receiving no theatrical release in the United States, Hangman's Curse is now available in a good edition from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
Rogers High School has a peculiar problem. Healthy students are falling prey to a supernatural force. The victims collapse, shout "Abel Frye!" during a hellish hallucination, and then lapse into a coma. It would seem insignificant except that Abel Frye committed suicide in a closed wing of the school several years earlier.
Baffled, school officials bring in the Springfield family. Headed by patriarch Nate (David Keith, An Officer and a Gentleman, The Lords of Discipline), the family is praised for their private investigation skills. While installed into the school as a janitor, wife Sarah (Mel Harris, thirtysomething, K-9) joins him in the guise of the school nurse. Daughter Elisha (Leighton Meester) and son Elijah pose as normal teenagers. After some investigation, Elisha uncovers evidence that these attacks may not be supernatural after all. Something far more human and sinister lurks beneath the walls of Rogers High.
Hollywood has this strange requirement for thrillers these days. They must be chock full of idiotic actions and condescend to the audiences who walk in expecting to be thrilled. There are exceptions; Brian De Palma's work, for example. Normally, I tend to dread the modern thriller, and Michael Medved's rave review on the keep case didn't help matters. So imagine my thoughts when I received Hangman's Curse to review. I popped the disc into the player and expected the worst.
My worries were for nothing. Hangman's Curse is a terrific thriller. It starts slowly, establishing the premise and characters. Once the expository material is out of the way, the film begins to work on our nerves through old-fashioned suspense and filmmaking skill. Based on a bestseller by Frank Peretti (who also appears in the film as an eccentric scientist), Hangman's Curse manages to avoid most of the clichés found in modern thrillers. It earns legitimate scares from common situations, which is the best kind of suspense. It has a humdinger of an ending, which doesn't cheat the expectations of the audience. Peretti's nutty scientist is comedy relief, but it is a welcome respite from the tension.
The film was directed by Rafal Zielinski. If the name doesn't ring a bell, he got his start with Roger Corman via the 1983 cult classic sexploitation comedy Screwballs. It was an entertaining but awfully ragged effort. I was surprised with the slick, effective job he did with Hangman's Curse. His direction is non-obtrusive and without gimmicks. He relies on good camerawork and fine performances to make this material work on screen. He also shows a good sense of what works to the story's best advantage.
The acting is excellent. David Keith has long been a reliable character actor. His portrayal of Nate continues his winning streak of likeable yet forceful characters. Mel Harris is known mainly for television work, and most of her big screen efforts have been poor (K-9 anyone?). However, her strong performance as Sarah Springfield gives me hope for a comeback. Even though Hollywood frowns on older actresses, Harris is one of the unsung actresses still working today. Frank Peretti's scientist is goofy and smile-inducing. Of the younger cast members, they all give impressive performances, especially Leighton Meester as the wily and inquisitive Elisha.
Hangman's Curse is presented on a flipper disc. Side A contains the full frame transfer. Side B contains a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. I advise all potential viewers to stick with the widescreen version, which has tighter, more satisfying framing. It is a nice looking transfer, very clean and balanced. The only drawback is some grain during all dark scenes as well as some minor edge enhancement.
Two audio tracks, both in stereo, are both excellent. An important element of this feature is the various sound effects and musical score, which augment the creepy atmosphere of the film. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track is particularly effective, with excellent use of the multi-channel process.
There are even some extras. "The Spider Wrangler: The Spiders of Hangman's Curse" gives us a look at how the arachnids were utilized in the production. It is fascinating and worth seeing. "Frank Peretti: From Page to Screen" is a more straightforward "making-of" featurette. The most annoying aspect of the extra content is that you have to flip the disc to see them, as each side contains one featurette.
The original theatrical trailer, in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, closes this small package.
I definitely recommend spending an evening with Hangman's Curse. With all the abysmal thrillers Hollywood craps out on a yearly basis, at long last, here is a thriller than is smart, creepy, and surprising. The retail price of $24.99 makes it too steep to make an attractive blind buy. Rent it first and then look for a good discount.
All charges have been dropped. Hangman's Curse will not be executed by hanging today.
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