Starring: Walter Ruether (Host), Geno Dellamorte ("A Fistful of Innards"), Sean Magee, Star Dellamorte, Danielle Saada ("Rebellion"), Brian Carr, Steve Slotnick, and Christina Chavez ("Death Chat"), Scott Boyd, Tara Carlton ("Meat"), Jared Love, Dez K Daver ("Closet Case"), Vincent Bocchini, Michelle Portnoy ("The Great Damone"), Dana Kleinschmidt, and Danielle Schultz ("Slash of the Blade")
Directors: Laurence Holloway and Scarlet Fry
Rating: Three of Ten Stars
"Nightmare Alley" (1947) starring Tyron Powers is one of the unquestionably deserving-of-classic status in the film-noir genre.
That is not this "Nightmare Alley." Not even close.
This "Nightmare Alley" is a low-budget anthology film that tries to capture the style of horror comic book anthologies like Warren's "Creepy" and "Vampirella", but instead comes across more like DC Comics' "House of Mystery" at its absolute worst. With a running time of just 73 minutes, it nonetheless manages to present a framing sequence, intro and closing host segments for each tale, and seven different little stories.
That's a lot to cram into a film as short as this. Too much, in fact, as the stories are more like sketches than full-blown tales--each with mostly unpleasant characters doing stupid things that ultimately leads them to a bad end. There is no time for character development or even to establish mood in any of the stories. Not that there was much attempt to establish mood at any time. I don't know that it was such a good idea to shoot the entirety of this movie in broad daylight, under the Arizona summer sun.
Part of me likes the experiment taking place in this film--the attempt to make a full-blown horror movie in ten minutes or less. It's not an impossible task, but writers/directors Holloway and Fry just aren't up to the task.
The problem starts with their characters. Like the worst of the stories in the DC Comics horror anthologies of the 1970s, they don't behave in anything that even remotely resembles a logical or realistic fashion.
We have a guy who flees from a bum who just murdered his friend... but who then stops around the corner to read a comic book. We have a fat, lecherous neighbor invited over for dinner and shows up in nothing but the pair of cut-off jeans he wore earlier pool-side. We have a flaming homo picking on a pudgy punk rocker at a bus stop for no reason whatsoever. We have girls being stalked by a reborn Jack the Ripper who run to an empty park instead of to a nearby business.
And in every case, at the end of every story, the twist is "and then they get murdered!"--with one exception where it's "the fat slob ate the husband's dead body and then wandered the streets in a Speedo."
Adding to the problem of the universally weak stories are the facts that the cast is mostly made up of inexperienced actors who here are performing in their first screen parts, and who are delivering stilted and sometimes nonsensical lines. Their performances appear even worse due to loose editing, which is at its most terrible in a scene where a philandering husband gets attacked by an axe-wielding ghost. The scene is so sloppily edited that it becomes unintentionally comic, with the ghost raising its axe veeery slowly and giving the guy several seconds to escape--or fight back--but which he spends going "No, please don't kill me!" (In fact, two of the three decent performances in the film--Sean Magee in "Rebellion", as a man driven to murder after being possessed by a demonic novelty item; and Brian Carr in "Death Chat", as a philandering husband who's quest for extra-marital sex backfires--are severely undermined by the incompetent editing of the scenes they're in. For the record, the third performance I thought was good was from Jared Love, because I had me laughing out loud with his ridiculous portrayal of a flaming homosexual on the make.)
For all that is bad about this film, it did have the benefit of most anthology films in that everything is short and sweet. If a story is a complete misfire--like the leading zombies in the Wild West segment ("A Fistful of Innards"), the limp homage to Roger Corman's "A Bucket of Blood" that is "The Great Damone" segment, and the closing Jack the Ripper in modern times segment ("Slash of the Blade")--it was over quickly and followed by something better. In the case of this film, "better" is only a slight improvement, but it was enough to keep me watching. With better technical execution and some more time spent developing characters and establishing mood, "Death Chat," "Meat," and "Rebellion" might actually have been pretty good. The same is true of the Host segments--pithier commentary might have made this nameless Crypt Keeper wanna-be actually amusing. There's also some fairly funny stuff--such as the gross neighbor in "Meat"--not to mention the drinking of beer from wine glasses in that same segment--and some okay gore effects that lead me to give "Nightmare Alley" an ultimate rating of Three Stars--a very low Three, but a Three nonetheless.
In the end, I think "Nightmare Alley" might be worth checking out if you're an aspiring filmmaker, for copious examples of what NOT to do when making a horror film, especially an anthology film.
Oh... and can I at this point make a formal request to all filmmakers: STOP with the artificial "aging" of your films. It was stupid and obnoxious when it was done in "Grindhouse" and it's twice so when done by imitators working with low or no budgets. It does NOTHING to enhance your film, and all you're accomplishing is making viewers like me think about DVDs struck from worn prints of older films that are better than yours. And it makes me think about how I could be watching one of those, films that came by their wear-and-tear honestly, instead of your effort.
("Nightmare Alley" releases direct to DVD on August 10, 2010. This review was based on a preview DVD provided by distributor Midnight Releasing.)