Keeping up with their tradition of releasing interesting new horror films as well as cherished cult classics from back in the day, Scream Factory released David Cholewa’s 2012 directorial debut, Dead Shadows, on Blu-ray and DVD today.
Set in Paris on the brink of a comet’s passing, Dead Shadows is a French horror film that combines elements of monster movies and end of the world flicks with mixed results. But those who like their horror served Lovecraft-style are in for a real treat.
While most of Paris’ population is seemingly gearing up to celebrate the grazing of the Earth’s atmosphere by an incoming comet, all Chris (Fabian Wolfrom) wants to do is sleep through the event in his apartment. Chris hates comets, and for good reason. His parents were gruesomely murdered 11 years ago on the night Halley’s comet whizzed by. Ever since that fateful night, Chris has feared the darkness and despised comets. But when his gorgeous down-the-hall neighbor Claire (Blandine Marmigère) throws out her boyfriend and asks Chris to be her date at the end of the year party in an apartment down the block, Chris must leave the safety of his light bulb-laden room behind to spend the night with his dream girl.
Unfortunately for Chris, he’ll have more to fear than the dark on his first date with Claire, for the comet comes bearing the same horrors Halley’s comet did 11 years earlier: snake-length alien slugs intent on slithering into, mutating, and enraging any humans it can find. As the streets clog with the deadly infected, Chris finds that his only hope for his and Claire's survival could come from his combat experienced, gun-packing neighbor, John (John Fallon).
For a horror film with a lean runtime of 76 minutes, Dead Shadows does an exceptional job spending time with its characters in its first half. While this approach could come off as too dull in some instances, it works well here because Cholewa has an interesting cast of characters to showcase.
It certainly helps that Chris, the flawed front man of the film, is instantly likeable. He’s lived through tragedy, and because of that he now lives like a child afraid to leave his room for fear of what might lurk in the hallway. His eyes and body language evoking a contradicting concoction of shyness and a longing for human interaction, Chris is the perfect reluctant hero. In the film’s beginning, he’s far from being as badass as the Snake Plissken poster hanging on his wall, but the malicious mutants created by the comet force him to develop into something more by film’s end. Newcomer Fabian Wolfrom perfectly portrays Chris’ transformations throughout his misadventures.
Definitely more of a Snake Plissken type right from the get-go is Chris’ gruff neighbor John. Played pitch-perfect by Arrow in the Head’s John Fallon, John is the type of guy who voluntarily takes the role of neighborhood protector with his own brand of badass belligerence. When he defends Chris from a group of thugs early on in the film, he tells them they’re out of luck because, “First, there’s only four of you…” Suffice it to say that John’s a fun character to watch, especially when he’s taking on tentacle-waving creatures in do-or-die street brawls.
Taking place in apartment complex hallways, the streets, and a rooftop, the fight scenes in Dead Shadows are well choreographed and shot coherently by Cholewa. One scene in particular, in which Chris takes on six infected humans with two baseball bats, really got my adrenaline pumping.
The creatures Chris and John are forced to fight look like something H. P. Lovecraft or The Thing (1982) special makeup effects creator and designer Rob Bottin would have conjured up. Revealed in an interview by Cholewa to be directly inspired by the creatures in the science fiction comic book series, Morbus Gravis, the comet slug-infected humans in Dead Shadows react to their infections in varied, unique ways. One woman’s face melts, another woman turns into a giant half-spider, and the local thug on the block grows tentacle hands. The one thing all mutations have in common, though, is the desire to kill regular humans. The differing mutations make for some unexpected and very creepy creature designs, most of which are added in post-production. While I really dig the look of the alien creatures in Dead Shadows, I wish there had been more practical effects used in their composition.
After a nice character-focused first half, I was let down by the second half’s frenetic pace and muddled motives. What began as a tight-as-a-drum story becomes a loose plot with an uneven pace. The climax, though still effectively boasting a hellish landscape of comet critters, feels oddly detached from what had come before. It's not that Cholewa and screenwriter Vincent Julé don’t crank up the action in the second half. They do, and with a team of talented stunt people, the action comes across with a welcome old-school vibe when it’s not too dressed up in CGI. But the closer it gets to the end credits, the more the film distances itself from Chris, who becomes more of a secondary character.
The bonus features are relatively brief, with an in-depth interview with director/co-producer Cholewa being the main highlight. In the interview, Cholewa talks extensively about the difficulties of shooting Dead Shadows in three weeks, his love for John Carpenter films and American horror cinema in general, and much more. It’s definitely worth checking out for any horror history buffs. Other bonus features include Making of the Special Effects and Deleted Scenes, both of which have short runtimes but feature the bass-driven, dreamlike song “Pale White Face” by Flying Turns.
Overall, Cholewa still delivers a satisfying debut. With empathetic characters and creative creature designs seemingly plucked out of somebody’s worst nightmare, Dead Shadows is an end of the world horror effort with a vibe all its own. Fans of old-school horror who don’t mind digesting a heavy dose of CGI should have a good time popping this one into the Blu-ray player around midnight…so long as you don’t mind having tentacle-infested nightmares afterwards.
Movie Score: 3/5, Disc Score: 3/5