This year, more than any other, gave birth to a vicious bevy of episodic horror on the web (aptly called "webisodes"). Clawing from the other side of your computer screenâ€˜s dim glow to get your attention - and traffic for their respective website hosts - these short films covered a myriad of subjects: Vampires, ghouls, werewolves, zombies and serial killers. (The only thing as fatal as these critters is the advertisements the viewer has to endure before each entry.)
The webisode market has been tested by many production companies over the last few years. The 30 Days of Night brand saw a few spin-offs. Hammer Films stepped out of its musty crypt, where it had rested for over three decades, to produce Beyond the Rave. But, as the You Tube/iPhone generation lurches deeper and deeper into the internet zeitgeist, filmmakers are pressed to debut their creations where instant access and gratification are paramount and 2009 offered horror fans a variety of selections.
In some instances, these films served as the perfect platform for fledgling filmmakers; in other instances, they attracted genre vets. Whatever the case, it forced them to adapt to concise storytelling that had to pull the viewer in, give them enough information to satisfy and exit each episode with the viewer wanting more in ten minutes or less.
Shock Till You Drop turned its weary, red eyes to the small screen and performed a marathon run of this year's fearsome crop.
13 Minutes to Midnight (Watch it!):
Rob G: This two-episode peculiar series felt like "Elvira meets Mr. Rogers," alas, it wasn't exactly my cup of tea. I do feel, however, that it implemented a few innovative ideas that none of the other web shows have attempted to do yet. For that, some of these gimmicks warrant mentioning.
Firstly, advertising has always been the main concern for people looking to produce this kind of web-based content. 13 Minutes To Midnight uses product placement in both episodes as a way to take advantage of sponsorship. Unfortunately, a lot of the jokes written in for the sake of product placement fall flat. Most of the humor does, despite the best efforts of the cast.
Second, the official website for the show offers the opening introduction in seven languages. While you can't watch the entire show this way, it at least opens it up to the potential for worldwide appeal. Itâ€™s a good way to slowly built interest with a mass audience not just confined to the United States.
Lastly, they offer you the opportunity to watch it in 3D using the good ol' red and blue process. Considering the sudden appeal to 3-D movies at the box office, I'm surprised no other web series have tried this yet. While it's a great gimmick, neither episode really offers anything popping out towards the scene to warrant the 3-D.
Despite these clever tricks, the show overall doesn't necessarily ever decide exactly what it wants to be. Beautiful host and lead Erika Smith kept me intrigued enough to keep watching, but I couldn't help scratch my head at the bizarre cameo of Perez Hilton via webcam. (GRADE: D but an "A" for effort.)
Ryan Rotten: Why the Perez cameo? Because he'll give it a plug on his site and throw traffic in the direction of the show. You, sir, are far too kind. A vasectomy could quite possibly be more agreeable to me than thisâ€¦thisâ€¦I'm not really too sure what you could categorize it as. I know one thing, if I wanted a peek into a crazy Halloween party featuring an assortment of colorful characters, I would have planted a camera at any number of bashes thrown by my friends. The two episodes that exist run ten minutes too long, the product plugs are annoying and I couldn't care less about the life and love of leading lady Erika Smith, who is admittedly pretty, but I wanted to tune out of this series three minutes in. (GRADE: F)
Blood Cell (Watch it!):
Rob G.: Ah, so that's what became of LonelyGirl15. This series is intriguing. It's made by the WB so the production values are slick. You've got an iconic looking killer in a mask (well, kidnapper in a mask) making an appearance within the first minute of the first episode, and then a mystery that our lead character has to solve to find her missing friend. The only thing she has to adhere to is to keep her cell phone active at all times to continue playing the kidnapper's game.
The episodes were short and engrossing enough to keep me going onto the next one to see what would happen next. I was a little bummed by the cheat at the end of episode three going into episode four, but at least the show attempts to end each one with a punch or on some kind of cliffhanger. The next few episodes take a while to get the story progressing further, even though they introduce a new character, but by episode nine when the kidnapper makes his presence known again, it revitalized my interest. Hell, by that point I had to keep going and I sat and watched all 18 episodes in a row. This obviously gets the series formula right.
By the way, this series was directed by up and coming filmmaker Eduardo Rodriguez who's 2002 short "Daughter" ranks as one of my all time favorite short films. Keep an eye out for him and anything his name is attached to. (GRADE: B+)
Ryan Rotten: Gritty and simmering with dread, Eduardo Rodriguez's foray into the web world is a vicious exploitation of modern technology as a young woman is forced to keep her cell phone on in order to find a kidnapped friend. Rodriguez utilizes the webisode format well, layering clues, tension, aggressive sound design and delicious cliffhangers to keep you barreling along through all 18 existing episodes. Rodriguez previously helmed an episode of Fear Itself and Curandero, written by Robert Rodriguez, which remains unreleased and shelved at Miramax. Blood Cell comes recommended. Turn off the lights and let this one get under your skin. (GRADE: B)
Circle of Eight (Watch it!):
Rob G.: Considering Paramount was behind this series, it's no surprise that this probably has the best production value of the bunch and looks the most like a theatrical feature. (Or perhaps more appropriately a direct to DVD feature, which is a theory I've got. More on that in a minute.)
The premise is simple enough. Jessica (Austin Highsmith) moves into a new apartment complex with an eclectic cast of odd tenants, including the good looking "artistâ€ Evan (Ryan Doom) and the ultra creepy Randall (DJ Qualls) and slowly begins to discover that there's some kind of presence haunting her new home.
The good things going for this web series? Again, good production values and a decent, somewhat recognizable cast (Qualls having appeared in several big comedies). The beautiful score that begins with the second episode is great. And at least this particular web series offers an interactive gimmick. At one point during each episode, an icon will appear on screen. If you click it, you'll be given access to a clue to unlocking some of the show's secrets.
The things against it? I found it hard to get into the show, because nothing truly happens for the first few episodes. In fact, the first major "jump scare" doesn't happen until the very end of episode three. The characters were also very frustrating. A lot of Jessica's neighbors seem to barge in and out of her apartment at will and without any regard to her privacy. Hell, I would've punched Randall first and asked questions later if he walked into my place taping me with his own personal video camera. While I could be wrong, this feels a lot like a direct-to-DVD feature that's been cut up into 12 episodes rather something made to take advantage of the 5 minute timeframe. There are still several more episodes to go, so I'll continue to watch in hopes that the mysteries revealed will be worth the wait. (GRADE: C+)
Ryan Rotten: Of the lot we had to grade, this series is the most handsome in the photography and score departments. But technical accomplishments aside, director Stephen Cragg (Reaper) starts off with a bang by making us witness a woman falling out of her tenement window just as the cops are running through the front door. Not bad. Unlike Robâ€˜s assessment above, however, I found the how endearing because of its quirky nature. From the new apartment protagonist Jessica moves into (shot in L.A.'s Linda Vista Hospital), where a large piece of furniture is supported by a wedge, to her nosey neighbors who curiously know more info about her than she gives them. There's a good amount of mystery, however, the cliffhangers at the end of each entry are rather weak. Stick with it, though. Things are ramping up and in a recent episode, Jessica falls prey to an effective funhouse-style jump gag. (GRADE: A-)
Creepshow Raw (Watch it!):
Ryan Rotten: Yes, we're still licking our wounds from the abortion that was Creepshow 3 (or depending on your opinion of it, Creepshow 2). Fear not, even though Taurus Entertainment (those responsible for the third film) are co-producers on the "Creepshow" brand's leap to the web, HDFilms and director Wilmer Valderrama (That's '70s Show) are along for the ride and I suspect those two are to thank for preventing this from being a major misfire.
Even though the production values are something to be desired, the "Creepshow" tone is intact with the score and comic panel framework. The narrative is brisk and satisfying, too. Here a young man appears to be afflicted with insomnia, much to the chagrin of his asshole father (played by Michael Madsen). Turns out, the lad is fighting a monster that arrives in his bedroom on a nightly basis. And we're not talking about a metaphor for abuse by his father. There's a flesh and blood creature, executed to some degree of success - it looks a bit hokey. There's an amusing denouement, however, it raises a logistical question or two. Still, it's harmless. (GRADE: B)
Rob G.: Okay. I like the idea of doing a "Creepshow"-esque webseries. Sure enough, this opens on the page of a comic book panel before dissolving to a live-action scene. And then it happensâ€¦Michael Madsen channels his best William Forsythe and they re-enact the opening scene to Rob Zombie's Halloween. (Which although I kind of like that first movie, that kitchen scene is my least favorite part of it.) There's no need for Madsen to drop F bombs and talk about "liking to nail" his stepson's mom when the entire second half of the episode is awesome. Yes, it gets way better around the 3 Â½ mark, and this opening scene alone makes me go down a whole grade just for being here.
The rest of the show is great, scary fun! A kid arms himself preparing for the return of a beastly monster that comes out of his closet every night. A fun battle ensues, and then we get a nice twist of an ending. That part of the show definitely had the Creepshow/Tales from the Darkside vibe to it and I loved that. (Plus, the monster did look pretty bitchin'.)
My only complaint is that opening scene. The rest is what other horror webisodes should strive to capture. (GRADE: B)
Dead & Lonely (Watch it!):
Rob G.: Ti West's series for IFC is one that I personally enjoyed immensely. The premise and execution of the show are simple enough. Guy breaks up with girlfriend. Puts ad on dating site "DateOrDie.net." New girl replies. New girl happens to be a vampire.
This quirky little show is perfect for West's film aesthetic. Although I doubt this was filmed in New York, it reminds me a lot of the stuff West did over at Glass Eye Pix. I love Larry Fessenden's vampire flick Habit and while this isn't nearly as serious as that particular feature, it was very reminiscent. Dead & Lonely is quirky and humorous and offers a concept with such delicious irony to it. Take out the vampire angle and you've still got these two characters on an awkward first date. Is the vampire girl just as lonely as her host? Does she have second thoughts about feeding on him? I wondered where it was going with each passing episode. Short and sweet, I was surprised by the conclusion at the fifth episode and thought this one was definitely a fun watch. (GRADE: B)
Ryan Rotten: Agreed on all counts. Each episode lasts 4 Â½ to 5 minutes and during that time West offers equal parts naturalism, tension and humor. It's not entirely scary, needless to say, but West posits a clever approach to the dating scene and its conclusion is surprisingly bleak. Paige Stark - as Lee the vampire - is adorable and brings an amiable touch of awkwardness while Justin Rice (as Justin) adds some believable shades of a recently dumped dude who's on the rebound and pays the price. Graham Reznick's score is repetitive, but I dig it. (GRADE: A)
Fear Clinic (Watch it!):
Rob G: Of all the web shows we're previewing here, I'd imagine that this is the one that's going to appeal the most to genre fans. It features a cast of who's who actors from the horror genre, it's helmed by Rob Hall, a director that's already got a few features under his belt and an extensive background in special FX make-up (which he utilizes extensively for the show) and it's specifically catering to the genre audience. While the overall through line of the series is Dr. Andover and his radical experiments on patients in his fear clinic, each episode could easily stand on it's own since they each pick one particular phobia and make that the focus of said episode.
For a show that has a six-day shooting schedule, the production value is pretty strong. While the story is okay enough, the best thing about the show has to be its FX, which comes as no surprise considering the director, who did all the practical and digital FX in-house using his company Almost Human FX. In episode one, which deals with hydrophobia, the character of Brett is haunted by his dead mother who drags her curled up feet along as she glides around the room, making for one of the show's most visually iconic moments. The second episode, scotophobia play's with Susan's (Danielle Harris) fear of the dark and makes unique use of the dark. Entomophobia is by far the most disgusting of the bunch featuring some cringe worthy bits of actress Kate Nauta slicing at what she thinks are bugs under her own skin. Hall's one of the few filmmakers today that truly understands how to properly balance practical and CGI enhancements to achieve the most effective shots.
The series isn't perfect, but it's hard not to get giddy seeing Robert Englund, Kane Hodder, Danielle Harris, Lisa Wilcox all in the same show. (Not to mention all the fun horror nods put in by Hall through out.) While the ending is obviously meant to set up future installments, this series actually felt like an elaborate prequel to a feature length film. (GRADE: B+)
Ryan Rotten: Funny you should mention that, Rob. Because Fear Clinic writer Aaron Drane would love to turn it into a feature film. Before doing so, the clunky nature of the story would need to be resolved. In spite of the names behind it, Fear Clinic stumbled far too much for me to enjoy it. The conceit - patients overcoming a manifestation of their fear - is a no-brainer, but the time limitations keep the ideas from fully being realized. There characters, who I have little sympathy for, have no room to breathe. Hall is clearly having fun with the goopy gross-out FX though. Yet the digital work falls flat and isn't flattering on the computer screen. Still, the banter between Kane Hodder and Robert Englund are chuckle-inducing ("I've got the body, you got the brainsâ€¦"). Another web series shot at the Linda Vista Hospital, too! (GRADE: C+)
The Occculterers (Watch it!):
Rob G.: To be completely honest, I've never seen Ghosthunters, so I just don't get the appeal. Same goes for something like Paranormal Activity, a movie I openly dislike despite it being the most talked about horror movie at the moment. Perhaps people have lowered their expectations of acting because they're so used to reality television? Regardless, it's to my understanding that The Occulterers is meant to be a spoof of a Ghosthunters-type show. Sadly, it's not very good or funny.
The production value on the first episode is fairly terrible. It's obvious that none of the actors are actually in the room of the haunted house but instead in front of a green screen (the FX are terribly blended). Was this done on purpose to be humorous? I don't think so, because the production value improves by the second episode. Only one Friday The 13th joke at the end of the first episode made me chuckle, otherwise, this show falls flat. This is definitely not for me. Perhaps the Ghosthunters crowd will find this funny? (GRADE: F)
Ryan Rotten: Ah, we see eye-to-eye. Technically inept, awful jokes (inspired by President Obama and Twilight), an even worse character that goes by the name "Herve. Epic fail and a waste of my time. (GRADE: F)
Splatter (Watch it!):
Rob G: Here's one that should've been a total win. You've got "master of horror" Joe Dante directing, Roger Corman producing, Richard Christian Matheson writing, and a cast that features genre favorites Corey Feldman and Tony Todd.
For some reason, all the above elements only add up to an okay web series. The story takes place at the funeral of rock star Johnny Splatter (Feldman), where his friends, former lovers, band mates and associates all congregate in hopes to getting a small piece of his massive fortune. However, the funeral is an elaborate way to lock them all in the house and inflict a little payback for the wrongs they've done.
You've got a decent enough cast, a great director and some decent FX, yet for some reason, the whole thing looks and feels cheap. (I know, I know, it's a Corman flick, but still.) Feldman's putting on the deep voice a little too thick and I doubt the intent was to make this as campy as it comes off. Fun, maybe, but not campy.
The interesting aspect? It's the first ever Netflix web series. Now if we were able to access it via our Netflix Watch Instant boxes, then I'd say you've got something, but for now, it's only accessible via the direct link on the Netflix site. Also of interest? Yet another attempt for a web series to implement interactivity. With two more episodes on queue for later this month, you the viewer have the opportunity to vote on who dies next. Hoping this gets better, but judging from the first episode, it'll probably remain at this quality and it's not something I'd revisit. (GRADE: C)
Ryan Rotten: Despicable people being killed in despicable ways in a house haunted by a rocker who used some African mumbo jumbo to return from the grave for revenge. Not a bad equation. But it's too kitschy to be frightening so the thrills here come from finding out who will die next and what will be left of them. The aesthetic doesn't scream "Joe Dante" but the rough around the edges nature of this endeavor is undoubtedly "Roger Corman." At ten minutes long, episode one is all about set up with two kills, one fairly gruesome. Fingers crossed the follow-up episode will gain a little momentum. (GRADE: B-)
Woke Up Dead (Watch it!):
Ryan Rotten: Napoleon Dynamiteâ€˜s Jon Heder plays Drex, a guy who catches his girlfriend sleeping with another guy (girlfriend is a term used loosely), takes a pill and wakes up in a bathtub full of water. His roommate, played by Josh Gad (who can be interchangeable with Jack Black), claims Drex has been in the tub long enough to drown and die. To solidify Drex's new "zombie" status, he's hit by a bus only to reawaken on the morgue slab of a former classmate (Kristen Ritter).
The series focuses on Drex's life while he juggles work, love and the mystery behind his undead condition. It becomes an avenue for laughs about office life and allows Wayne Knight and Daniel Roebuck to have some kicks in their respective roles. Each episode lasts three to four minutes and is worth a watch if you have time to burn through the series. The gags are a blast (like when Drex's roommate swaps out meatloaf for brains) and the timing is on point. A surprising zom-com.
Didn't see this one coming from creator John Fassano, the man behind Black Roses and Rock â€˜n Roll Nightmare. (GRADE: A)
Rob G.: When I first heard about this comedy series featuring Napoleon Dynamite as a zombie, I immediately thought "pass." But in prepping for this piece, I decided to give it a whirl and compare it to the other genre-based shows I've been watching. And would you believe this turned out to be the most entertaining of the bunch?
I managed to zip through the first four or five episodes literally in no time. I love the concept of waking up as a zombie and then trying to cope with regular life stuff. At the same time, your best friend wants to film your daily routine and exploit it for an on-line website called Woke Up Dead TV. And the cute scientist chick you dig is just using you to study your "condition." It takes the zombie sub-genre in unique, funny and entertaining new directions and that's why I love this one.
On top of the great production value (this one actually feels like a regular television series), the show boasts great guest appearances by actors like Wayne Knight and Daniel Roebuck. Highly recommended and worth sharing with friends. (GRADE: A)
Source: Ryan Rotten, Robert Galluzzo