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Hollywood’s latest and greatest horror

Hollywood appears to have fallen into a convenient formula for making contemporary horror films: Cast at least one semi-recognizable television starlet (say, Elisha Cuthbert, Sarah Michelle Gellar or that Aussie chick from “Lost”), involve Dee Snider or Rob Zombie somehow, utilize hyperactive camera work and editing, include as much blood and soft-core promiscuity as possible, liberally borrow plotlines from successful predecessors and top everything off with a relentless one-week media blitz. This, however, does not a good horror film make.

Luckily, there are a few gems out there among the gory mainstream fare. If you’re looking for a few small-screen thrills and chills this Halloween, here are three under-the-radar and recently released DVDs worth considering.

Black Sheep (2006)
No, this isn’t the film starring Chris Farley and David Spade. Rather, it’s a cheeky freak show featuring actual sheep gone mad. And, even better, were-sheep gone mad. Set on a quiet New Zealand ranch, a no-good, greedy brother decides to sell his family’s estate. His little brother—the one, incidentally, suffering from a crippling fear of sheep—comes back to convince him not to sell. That all becomes slightly less important once it’s discovered that part of big bro’s deal involves scientific experiments on sheep, which accidentally turns them into bloodthirsty killers with the capability of transforming their human victims into rabid sheep-like zombies.

Writer/director Jonathan King’s creation is as funny as it is frightening. Aside from the ridiculous fact that it’s based on killer sheep, the cast of misfits—an honorable ranch hand, a couple of animal rights activists who stumble upon the chaos, and the one morally correct brother—strike the perfect comedy-horror tone. It’s not exactly high-brow when the cute female activist enters a house full of suspicious carnage and cries, “Oh…my…God…the feng shui in this room is terrible,” but it fits both her character and the silliness that make Black Sheep so baaaad that it’s good.

Special screenings of Black Sheep occur at the O’Shaughnessy Center in Whitefish Mon., Oct. 29, at 7 PM and Tue., Oct. 30, and Wed., Oct. 31 at 4 and 7 PM. $8/$6 students.

Fido (2006)
Same deal here. Fido goes for more satirical laughs than fear-induced cringes—and contains significantly less gore than Black Sheep—but it’s too clever not to be considered for Halloween viewing. A nearly unrecognizable Billy Connelly stars as little Timmy Robinson’s enormous and rotting pet zombie, Fido. Set in an alternate suburban-American 1950s where zombies are part of society’s disciplined underclass, Fido has become a beloved and loyal part of the Robinson household. That is, right up until his domestication collar breaks and he eats Timmy’s neighbor. Then Fido has to regain his family’s—and neighborhood’s—trust, with Timmy’s dogged help.

Fido is an odd blend of “Leave it to Beaver,” “Lassie,” 2004 Brit comedy Shaun of the Dead and George Romero’s symbolic zombie blood fests. First-time director Andrew Currie makes it work by never allowing the considerable messaging overwhelm the film’s charm. There’s also a keen sense of aesthetics at play; the movie is a wash of bright pastels offsetting Fido’s sickly presence. For those in the mood for lighter Halloween viewing, Fido delivers worthy weirdness.

1408 (2007)
Calling this adaptation of a Stephen King short story “under-the-radar” isn’t a stretch considering it stars anything-for-a-paycheck Samuel L. Jackson and once-was-great John Cusack. I mean, Cusack hasn’t done anything worthwhile since, what? Maybe 1999’s Being John Malkovich? Or 2000’s High Fidelity? It was easy to write this off as big-budget, mid-summer malarkey.

But Cusack turns out to be improbably superb in 1408 as acerbic horror reporter Mike Enslin. The writer’s found a profitable niche in spanning the globe to debunk paranormal occurrences and garnered a loyal if not geeky following in the process. Cusack’s naturally smirky demeanor perfectly suits Enslin’s dueling mini-celebrity pride and the depressing realization that he’s little more than a Dr. Phil for paranormal nerds; he drinks heavily and convincingly.

That’s why it’s fun to see Enslin smugly take on the challenge of staying the night at New York’s Dolphin Hotel and, specifically, in its infamous room 1408, in spite of a prolonged plea from the hotel manager (Jackson) to steer clear of the jinxed suite. Little by little Cusack’s character unravels in the face of unexplained happenings, beginning with an appropriately spooky broadcast of The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun.”

For 60 taut minutes this movie hums on the sort of hard-boiled tension and palpable panic that makes horror films so much fun. It runs completely off the tracks at the conclusion with a series of false endings—clearly, as with a lot of King adaptations, director Mikael Hafstrom (Derailed) and the team of screenplay writers had no idea how to wrap this up—but it’s not enough to undermine a fantastically fearful first hour.


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