Slashers DVD Review
Written by Eric Strauss
DVD released by Fangoria
Written and directed by Maurice Deveraux
2001, Region 1 (NTSC), 99 minutes, Not Rated
DVD released on September 24th, 2002
Sarah Joslyn Crowder as Megan Lowry
Kieran Keller as Michael Gibbons
Tony Curtis Blondell as Devon White
Jerry Sprio as Rick Fisher
Carolina Pla as Rebecca Gallery
Sofia De Medeiros as Brenda Thompson
Claudine Shiraishi as Miho Taguchi
Chris Piggins as Doctor Ripper
Neil Napier as Chainsaw Charlie and Preacherman
It is better to be lucky than good, or so the cliché goes.
But as Canadian writer/director Maurice Deveraux’s horror film $la$her$ shows, it is best to be both.
Back in 1998, Deveraux wrote a script focused on a fictional Japanese game show that pitted contestants against a trio of hired killers, with ordinary people risking their lives in hopes of winning millions of dollars just by surviving.
By the time the film debuted, in 2001, reality TV had become a phenomenon, and Deveraux’s bloody little flick had taken on a whole new level of parody.
Part The Running Man, part “Fear Factor,” part Friday the 13th, the movie $la$her$ follows the biggest episode of the titular game show, as its first American contestants go for the green: $12 million if they make it to the finish line, plus another $2 million for every slasher they can kill. But only the survivors get to cash in, so the question becomes more than who is tough enough: It is who can be trusted.
The film follows the competition through the on-scene cameraman’s point of view, as he follows participants through the warehouse-sized maze of sets. Thus, those watching the film get a feel for what it might be like to watch the raw footage of the actual show. The competitors, too, are acutely aware of their medium: when one, an actress looking for a career boost, removes her top, another remarks that her chances for survival just went up. Sex, after all, makes for better ratings.
And some of the best moments come during the commercial breaks, when everyone — killers and contestants alike — must freeze in place until the show returns to the air. But that doesn’t mean a man faced with a lethal weapon can’t try to talk his way out of the predicament while the (unseen) ads run.
Reality TV is at a peak, with everything from “Trading Spaces” to “The Simple Life” raking in the viewers — and while Deveraux’s filmmaking time frame can justify his claim that this is not a ripoff of such shows as “Survivor,” the theme of the film plays even better now than it would have before CBS’ monster hit. That extrinsic factor is a godsend for $la$her$. What might have been seen as novel, but unbelievable, now rings shockingly true in the days of “The Anna Nicole Show,” elevating the movie from novelty to full-blown satire.
The film takes full advantage of that opportunity to shine — Deveraux has written a strong script, oozing with the tension that might be expected from a top-ranked reality drama with real lives on the line. Plus, his direction brings out the best in that script. He opts for long, involved single takes as part of the camera-eye view of the action, and that gives an added sense of realism.
However, don’t be fooled by the TV show theme. There is plenty of gore and even a brief bit of nudity. Effects, done by Adrien Morot and his Maestro FX company, are excellent, particularly given the film’s meager $150,000 budget. Although one severed head looks pretty fake, another is so spot-on, a character totes it around without ever losing credibility. Blood means big bucks in the world of the $la$her$ TV show, and Deveraux literally pours it on, particularly in scenes involving a chainsaw-wielding killer.
But, if $la$her$ has a weakness, it is the acting. The good news is, the experienced Chris Piggins (who starred in Deveraux’s previous movie, Lady of the Lake) brings an over-the-top gusto to his psychopathic Dr. Ripper character, and Neil Napier plays both wild and understated well as the other killers, Chainsaw Charlie and the rookie Preacherman.
Less consistent are the six actors who play the show’s contestants. Another more experienced actor, Tony Curtis Blondell, is rock solid as the victory-focused Devon, and while Kieran Kellar can match Piggins when it comes to scenery chewing, the ridiculous grinning and eye-bulging usually fits his geeky Michael.
Carolina Pla, playing the athletic Rebecca, and Sofia De Medeiros, as the actress/model Brenda, have their nice moments, but both prove quite wooden at times. Even worse, Jerry Sprio has one note, all cheese, as the bouncer Rick.
Unfortunately for $la$her$, the biggest problem in the cast is the lead, Sarah Joslyn Crowder, as defiant law student Megan. Crowder plays every scene, whether it requires Megan to be scared, angry or relieved, with a scrunched-up face, snarling every line through gritted teeth. Although it is clear the young actress is trying hard to give a good show, most of the time it is also clear she is trying too hard.
In addition, because Crowder was evidently uncomfortable with the semi-nudity the role requires, there is an awkwardness to scenes in which, with a homicidal maniac advancing, she seems more concerned with covering her breasts than saving her life. Admittedly, she is in a tough spot, since her character takes the brunt of the non-lethal punishment from the slashers, who rip off her shirt not once, but twice. But she is less physically impressive than her two long, lean female companions, and the perpetual scowl on her face ruins any cuteness she has.
It’s a credit to Deveraux’s writing and direction that a shaky actress struggling with a relatively unlikeable character doesn’t drag the film down with her.
That’s good news for horror fans, because $la$her$ is a clever, entertaining movie — a movie anyone who likes a side of wit with their gore should rush to see.
The shaky acting takes some getting used to, but the story will grab your attention from the start — and keep it.
Video and Audio:
The $la$her$ DVD’s first impression is a bad one, since the main menu’s moving images suffer from a distinct lack of sharpness that might have been unbearable if it lasted throughout the film’s hour and a half.
Instead, the feature’s picture is a revelation.
At its best, the anamorphic widescreen image is extremely clear. Colors are vivid and bold, and both blacks and whites come off well. Only longer shots and certain close-ups tend to lose their focus, and Deveraux points out on the commentary that some of these were not intended to be part of the finished film.
$la$her$ also avoids the two major technical difficulties of low-budget horror, bad lighting and digital noise. In fact, the film is extremely bright. Even the darker scenes’ image holds up well. Certainly, this is no major-studio release, but dollar-for-dollar, the shot-on-video movie compares extremely well.
Fangoria, which released the disc, is a brand name in horror and, clearly (pun intended), it refuses to sully its reputation with a mediocre DVD.
An amazing job; the quality of the picture is a literal eye-opener.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is generally just as clear as the video, but the lack of bass and surrounds means it can’t compare with the surprising picture. In addition, some of the masked killers’ dialogue can be difficult to understand at times. Still, the audio is more of a benefit than a hindrance to the film — another way $la$her$ avoids the low-budget trap, and another notch in Fangoria’s belt.
Spanish subtitles are available.
An unexceptional track, but in the indie world, solid is distinctly better than dreadful.
$la$her$ also provides a well-rounded set of extras.
An audio commentary features Deveraux, with friend and composer Martin Gauthier serving as company, moderator and prompter. Sometimes, Gauthier speaks too softly to be understood, but Deveraux — who does about 90 percent of the talking — always comes through loud and clear. The writer/director freely talks about the challenges and perils of filming on a low budget and offers some insight into his thought process, including the reasons he cut the 120-plus-minute version back to his preferred 99-minute one. He offers both broad filmmaking lessons and interesting details on this, his third film, manages to avoid the indie commentary trap of becoming too self-promotional.
Another nice audio bonus is the inclusion of Gauthier’s soundtrack, playable as a series of 28 tracks from the special features menu.
A documentary, “Playing with Your Nerves,” runs almost an hour and offers a good look at what went into making the movie, featuring interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and audition and rehearsal clips. Particular emphasis is put on the difficulty of shooting the extensive one-take footage, and the documentary wraps up with a nice look at $la$her$’ premiere at the 2001 Fantasia film festival in Deveraux’s hometown of Montreal. (Crowder, ironically, is much more attractive and relaxed in her interview footage than she is in the movie.)
Eleven minutes of deleted scenes are included, featuring some of the footage the director excised from his longer cut, plus extended versions of the kills from the show’s Japanese intro. Some are interesting, but they all reinforce Deveraux’s contention in the commentary that he cut for pace.
The trailer and two teasers (featuring the show’s “veteran” slashers, Dr. Ripper and Chainsaw Charlie) play like they are promoting a real Japanese television show (complete with typos on the English title cards). While those work well, a four-minute “interview” with Chainsaw Charlie, played as a parody of “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” comes off as silly and offers no insight. Another, rougher-looking trailer touts the behind-the-scenes documentary. Trailers for four other Fangoria releases, including Lady of the Lake, round out the previews.
An interesting Fangoria article on the movie, “Reality Slices” by Bram Eisenthal, is included in text form. There is also a small photo gallery and a short cast biographies — which are riddled with typos and other errors, including switching photos of two actresses.
On another down note, the menu seems to list the features in completely random order, not even grouping things like the trailers together.
This is a good, solid package, with a nice commentary and documentary, though the typographical errors take some of the shine off.
It is difficult to convey exactly what gives a smart film like $la$her$ its edge, because the magic is in the ideas and the subtle touches. On one hand it is a parody of reality TV taken to the nth degree, and on the other, it is a legitimate horror film, with tense scenes, cartoonishly memorable villains and buckets of blood.
Maurice Deveraux spent four years making this movie, enduring and overcoming a variety of obstacles. In the interviews and commentary, he seems excited about his film and proud of what he has accomplished.
He has good reason to be.
In the world of low-budget horror, $la$her$ is a standout, both for the quality of the DVD and, more importantly, for the quality of the movie on it.
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