Written and Directed by: Tom Holland
Starring: AJ Bowen, Danielle Harris, and Tom Holland
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
An Anthology of Darkness and Dread
For whatever reason, Tom Holland’s name rarely springs to mind when discussing his generation of horror masters. I don’t know if his name has ever been attached to any bona-fide masterpieces, but anyone whose resume includes Psycho II, Fright Night, Class of 1984, and Child’s Play deserves better than Holland’s purgatorial fate since the 80s, which consigned him to some Stephen King adaptations and undeserved obscurity. During the past few years, however, he did start up Dead Rabbit Films, a production company dedicated to horror films (it kind of has to be with that name—good luck getting distribution for anything Easter related). It’s under this shelter that Holland has made his return with Twisted Tales, a series of internet shorts that have been collected to form a 140 minute anthology film.
Calling it a triumphant return would be too effusive praise, but Twisted Tales reminds us that Holland’s imagination is still quite fertile. Throughout the nine episodes, he conjures up a host of disparate horrors that range from techno-horror to classic monsters, and a little bit of everything (including the apocalypse!) in between. Twisted Tales is not lacking for variety, nor does it lack for inconsistency. As with most anthologies, this is a mixed bag where the quality of the shorts ranges from forgettable to intriguing, with a couple that stand out as being pretty well accomplished given the resources at hand.
Let’s start with the disposable ones. “Mongo’s Magic Horror” centers on a duo of magicians who happen upon a fellow street illusionist (Ray Wise) with a magic mirror. The two have designs for the mirror but soon get more than they bargained for upon learning about its potential horrors. A typical “be careful-what-you-wish-for” sort of tale, “Mongo’s Magic Horror” imagines that the mirror that holds otherworldly dimensions that also serve to reflect one’s psyche, an idea that’s ripe for possibility that’s limited here by budget constraints and a general lack of direction beyond the premise. The same holds true of “Vampire’s Dance,” the collection’s final entry that finds Holland returning to familiar territory, as a girl’s sister has gone missing at a dance club that’s frequented by bloodsuckers. Beyond that, though, it’s difficult to say much more, as the short degenerates into a nigh-incoherent mess that sends Twisted Tales out on a sour—if not blood-soaked—note.
But the good news is that those are the only two complete duds since the remaining seven distinguish themselves in some way, be it through a cool idea, a familiar face, or a demented vibe. The execution isn’t always sturdy, mind you, particularly in the case of “Bite,” which features a bunch of stoners looking to get high off of a new designer drug that allows users to see the future. Somehow, werewolves also figure into the ordeal, so it’s easy to see that even this short alone doesn’t lack for ideas. A budget, however, is a different story. Without a decent one, the short features some nice practical werewolf makeup but not much else: the acting is subpar, and some of the gore effects are augmented by a cartoonish approach. While it may be attempting to mimic the look of comic books, it only serves to highlight the film’s paucity, and it’s more cringe-worthy than cool.
Speaking of comics, some of the segments carry a macabre, EC Comics/Amicus vibe and seek to punish characters with a deadly twist. This is immediately obvious, as the opening segment, “Fred and His GPS,” has a distraught husband (A.J. Bowen) frantically looking to leave the country after murdering his wife. Instead of complying, his GPS begins to chastise him by taking his wife's ghastly form before leading him to a grisly final destination. It’s a fun little short, and it’s followed up by “To Hell With You,” another tale of infidelity and supernatural revenge featuring Danielle Harris as a spurned lover given a unique opportunity for revenge when she’s visited by a demon (William Forsythe). Obviously, she’s duped into a horrifying deal, but that’s not the twist; instead, the film turns when she makes a play to outsmart the demon, who ends up being a weasely little shit that also has more tricks up his sleeve. Watching the two outwit each other is amusing, as is the demon’s final twist of the knife.
Similar themes and structures recur in the remaining shorts. “Boom” also deals with infidelity, as a couple of marines are at odds with each other over a girl. Both were expert bomb diffusers, so the jealous, paranoid one naturally crafts a contraption involving C4 as part of an elaborate revenge plot. “Boom” is among the strongest and most unhinged entries because you’re never quite sure who is playing who, and it’s a cool rollercoaster ride. One minute, the two friends are on the verge of reconciliation over a misunderstanding; the next, they’re right back at each other’s throats. I also think that even Jigsaw would be impressed by this psychotic marine’s level of planning and foresight.
More infidelity and demons resurface in “Pizza Guy,” which features a familiar setup: a group of dumb white people have come into possession of a book of intonations acquired from a shady estate sale, and one of the girls can’t help but summon Satan himself to grant her wish to speak to her dead sister one more time. A magic lamp probably would have been more efficient. Her conjuring coincides with a mysterious visit from a pizza delivery guy who may or may not be the devil. The longest of the shorts, “Pizza Guy” is cut up into six slices that become increasingly tedious, even though it does have fun summoning up some crazy mythos (for example, to appease Satan, the girl has to cut off an appendage for each person he manages to kill during his visit). If nothing else, this segment earns points for imagining the devil as an oblivious Valley Boy, complete with a Spicoli intonation.
That leaves a couple of technophobic leftovers in “Cache” and “Shockwave.” The former is a ghost-in-the-machine tale centered on two buddies who stumble upon what they assume to be a raving lunatic brandishing a digital tablet. When the poor guy commits suicide, one of the friends swipes the tablet. Bad idea. Soon, he’s haunted by a lunatic who’s managed to upload his consciousness into the digital ether, where he proceeds to torture and harass anyone who steals the devices in which he’s taken up residence. “Cache” probably takes advantage of the short format as well as any other segment, if only because the grating characters would really wear out their welcome after more than ten minutes. Mostly, however, it just got me thinking that the world really needs a Shocker sequel where Horace Pinker has invaded the internet.
Then there’s “Shockwave,” an apocalyptic story that has a bunch of socialite friends scrambling after an extraterrestrial EMP spreads a wave of deadly radiation across the world. As is demanded by the Looming Apocalypse genre, the friends swiftly turn into outrageous assholes and fight over a safe room. This one’s okay, though its reach exceeds its grasp; it’s tough to do up a proper endtimes scenario on this sort of budget, so the action is largely confined within a swanky home up in the Hollywood hills. With very little (to no) character development, however, the drama falls flat, with Angela Bettis scoring the only real gravitas (no surprise there). I like the hint of class warfare at work here, too, but it’s also largely unexplored due to the scant running time.
That’s my typical refrain for Twisted Tales, a collection that features a wealth of ideas but few means to actually explore them to any satisfaction. As a whole, the series only shows hints of unity in some of its shared themes and very much feels like a patchwork, which makes sense considering they’re technically web episodes. Originally a series on Fearnet, the entire run has been gathered together onto DVD by Image Entertainment, who outfitted the disc with some behind-the-scenes features on select shorts. The presentation varies in quality, as the segments reveal their lo-fi, web origins with a murky, digital aesthetic that’s symptomatic of so many independent ventures these days. It makes for a serviceable translation to television screens, but there’s no escaping the thriftiness involved. At times, Twisted Tales feels like a pilot—or, better yet, a pitch reel—of a cool concept that’d work much better with a bigger investment behind it. I enjoy the vintage sensibilities Holland brings to the table, not only as a writer and director, but also as the on-screen host in the Rod Serling mold; Twisted Tales is something of a funhouse, and I’m glad Holland has found a venue for his return—now, someone needs to give him a bigger budget. Rent it!
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