It’s been a pretty standard idea for a long time that straight to video is pretty much the bottom of the barrel for horror films. Of course, things are different now. In the VOD era, filmmakers would kill for a straight to video release or even a straight to video budget. The truth is that a straight to video label doesn’t automatically make a movie bad. Even if the vast majority of them are.
During the late ‘80’s and throughout the ‘90s, most horror was discovered on video. So many independent and foreign releases didn’t get much of a theatrical release in the US. That was when the video market was at its peak. Naturally, it was also the heyday of the direct-to-video (DTV) era.
There were so many DTV productions coming out during this time that it’s hard to keep track of them all. Many horror features that people remember as DTV, such as Leprechaun or Dr. Giggles, actually weren’t. Yet there are always those surprises, those rare gems that make sifting through all the cheesiness worth it.
The Video Dead
The Video Dead was not just another zombie movie made during the ‘80’s. It was a zombie movie that played to its DTV roots in that it was actually about a TV that spawns zombies. They rise not from the grave, but from the television. It was an interesting twist on the concept that was also aided by some impressive effects.
While most of the Howling sequels were rough to sit through, given that they all had nothing to do with Joe Dante’s original and were made for next to nothing, Howling V was actually the least rough of the bunch. It’s a fairly effective murder mystery that very sparingly shows its werewolf, in part because it can’t afford to reveal all that much of the creature. Regardless, this creates impressive tension.
One of the most overlooked vampire flicks of its time period, Subspecies is a great little video effort with an authentic feel that harkens back to the likes of Dark Shadows and the early Hammer movies. It has a great central villain in Radu and, more than anything else, stunning locations due to the fact that it was actually filmed in Transylvania.
A more recent video entry, Curse of Chucky was one that I don’t think anybody was expecting. It certainly took me by surprise. It was a reboot that got the franchise back on track and just happened to be a video release at the same time. Don Mancini was very conscious of the lower budget and instead of drawing attention to it, created a tight one-location thriller. The results are almost shockingly great.
While the first two Puppet Master features were surprise hits and effective little horrors in their own right, Puppet Master III is an unexpectedly heartfelt and character-driven movie. As an adult it still surprises me how good this one is. It is the best of the entire series, featuring an empathetic backstory that gives the whole franchise weight. But at the same time does not forget to bring some of the campiness, creative kills, and overall charm of early Full Moon.
Stuart Gordon’s Pit and the Pendulum is one of the best adaptations of Poe’s story (although it actually adapts both “Pit” and “The Cask of Amontillado”) despite the fact that it did not have a theatrical release. Lance Henriksen is so good in the role of Grand Inquistor Torquemada. And the entire film is a very serious look at the very realistic horror of religious persecution.
Even Fangoria, who hated Full Moon by and large, had to give Castle Freak the Chainsaw Award for best straight-to-video/limited release of 1995. It’s one of Stuart Gordon’s best, a serious, emotional story about a family that’s been torn apart by tragedy, trying to repair itself when the opportunity to do so has long since passed. And then, of course, there’s a freak in a castle. But the whole thing, zany and offbeat as it is, works really well.