It seems a  fairly obvious observation, but horror flicks are pretty "hot" these days. The current cycle of scary flicks can be attributed to box office hits like Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, Marcus Nispel's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, James Wan's Saw, and probably a half-dozen others, but moreso than any other genre, the popularity of horror movies seems to arrive in "waves." Apparently we're knee-deep in one of those waves right now. And now with one quarter of 2006 behind us, it's time for the first of four "progress reports," in which you and I wade through all the horror flicks presented in January, February, and March, and then decide if the studios and the indies have been treating the Gorehounds kindly.

1/6/06 -- BloodRayne (Romar) -- Kristanna Loken, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Rodriguez, and Michael Madsen humiliate themselves through the latest hilariously bad offering from the adorably inept filmmaker known as Uwe Boll. (It's a horror movie in that it features vampires -- and it's an absolute horror to sit through.) Jam-packed with laughable dialogue, dime-store costumes, non-sensical plot-churnings, and hyper-inept editing, BloodRayne is the kind of flick that should be required viewing for any and all film students. It's precisely the sort of movie that's so bad it's good -- although I suspect Boll is beginning to do "amazingly awful" on purpose, which sort of takes some of the fun out of it... Grade: D- (DVD release: 5-23)  
 
1/6/06 -- Hostel (Lionsgate) -- Coming off the "love it or hate it" debut of Cabin Fever, genre-lovin' filmmaker Eli Roth set his sights on something a little more grimy, grungy, and grim -- only you have to sit through a half-hour of "Porky's in Prague" before you get to the meat of the matter. But once the characters are established and the murky mood is laid down, Hostel bolts through a dizzyingly dark series of spectacularly sickening set-pieces. The result is a consistently creepy flick that also displays a weirdly endearing sense of gallows humor. Grade: B (DVD release:4-18)

1/20/06 -- Underworld: Evolution (Sony) -- Although the original Underworld has managed to grow on me over the past two years, the sequel seems intent on focusing on its predecesor's least alluring features. In between the seriously slick vampire/werewolf battles and the generous ganders at Kate Beckinsale in a slinky suit, we the viewers are subjected to a virtually endless array of flashbacks, back-stories, and expositional blatherings that, frankly, aren't all that interesting. Points are due to the filmmakers for actually trying to maintain some sort of cohesive narrative structure within their Underworld adventures, but both flicks would have been better served with a "less chatter, more splatter" approach. Grade: C- (DVD release: 6-6)

Extra Credit: 2-3-06 -- Tamara (Lionsgate) -- Rolled out in an ultra-limited mini-release (32 theaters), Tamara was initially set for a direct-to-video arrival, but someone thought the thing might sell a few tickets. (It made less than $200,000.) It's the story of a frumpy teenage girl who's always being picked on by her classm... Know what? It's Carrie. It's Evilspeak, Laserblast, and Christine, all rolled into one, starring a really hot newcomer and boasting some pretty nasty kill-shots. It won't make any year-end Top Tens, but speaking only as a hardcore horror fan, I kinda liked this flick. Grade: B- (DVD release: 5-9)

2-3-06 -- When a Stranger Calls (Sony) -- Yeesh. Movies like this represent the absolute barrel-bottom of studio-funded horror schlock. Here's the recipe: Take an "old" horror movie from the 1970s, hire an upstart screenwriter to modernize it, enlist a bunch of kids from the most-recently canceled WB series, and offer the thing to a director who's got the next seven weeks on his schedule wide open. Oh, and most important: be sure to remove anything that might be considered scary, sick, or disturbing, because that golden PG-13 is what we're all after. With very few exceptions, a PG-13 is the kiss of death on a horror movie. Period. (Not because it's impossible to create scares in a PG-13 environment, but because these flimsy remakes are never meant to be scary in the first place.) These flicks are made for 15-year-olds who want to hang out with their friends on a Friday night, and whatever non-R-rated newcomer wanders down the pike, that's the one that earns all the allowance money. Expect the "unrated" director's cut DVD to suck just as much. Grade: F (DVD release: 5-16)

2-10-06 -- Final Destination 3 (New Line) -- Just goes to show you what a little darkness, cleverness, and goriness can do for a horror franchise. By not watering down the story of "death, pissed off" that runs through this series, the folks at New Line have put together a trilogy that pleases fans and studio accountants in equal measure. Sure, the formula might be wearing a bit thin by chapter 3, but this second sequel packs a surprsingly strong salvo of creepy concepts, elaborate executions, and tongue-in-cheek terror. Or, put another way: compare Final Destination 3 to just about any other "part 3" in horror history (Friday the 13th, Halloween, Jaws, Amityville, etc., etc.), and the flick seems just a bit more impressive. Grade: B (DVD release: 7-25)

Extra Credit: 2-17-06 -- Night Watch (Fox Searchlight) -- Is it possible to have virtually no idea what's going on in a movie, yet still kinda like it? I guess so, because that's precisely how I feel about Russia's biggest box office hit of all time: Nochnoi Dozor. Soon to be followed by Day Watch and Dusk Watch, it's sort of like The Matrix, Underworld, Constantine, Star Wars, Jacob's Ladder, and (kinda) Braveheart, all rolled into one practically incomprehensible (but fun) concoction. Special kudos to Searchlight's stateside addition: subtitles that slip, slide, and ooze all over the screen. They give the epic lunacy a real comic book vibe, which helps to deflate the thing's self-serious tone just a bit. Personally, I think Night Watch still needs an extra trip to the editing bay, but it's still packing some slick movie tricks, and should find itself an appreciative audience once the R1 DVD hits the scene. Grade: B- (DVD release: tba)

3-10-06 -- The Hills Have Eyes (Fox Searchlight) -- The day I learned that one of my very favorite horror classics was being primed for a remake facelift, I was pissed. And while I was pleased to learn that original director Wes Craven was on board as a producer, two warnings popped into my head: 1. John Carpenter was also listed as a producer on the Fog remake, and we all know how that thing turned out. 2. Wes Craven was also listed as a producer on flotsam like Don't Look Down and that amazingly terrible Carnival of Souls remake, so clearly his involvement is no guarantee of quality. But then came the hire of Alex Aja, the genre-lovin' Frenchman who gave us the deliciously nasty High Tension. And then I waited... Surprise! The remake, a tale of suburban terror deep in the desert, turned out to be quite the intense little treat! PG-13 this one, you knuckleheads! Grade: B (DVD release: tba)

3-24-06 -- Stay Alive (Hollywood Pictures) -- And just when things start looking up, right? Here comes a limp, lethargic, and eminently unwatchable PG-13 horror title from the one studio truly known for telling high-quality terror tales: Disney. Someone over in a Mouse House boardroom simply connected the dots: Hey, most of these kid-friendly horror movies have big openings, thanks to bored teenagers with nothing better to do. And hey, most of these teenagers like these "video game" things, so let's wedge a bunch of 'em into our movie! To be fair, there are a few kernels of stray creativity to be found within this generally misshapen mass of celluloid, but they're far outweighed by the insipid screenplay, the editorial confusion, and the complete lack of intensity. Stay Alive earns a place right alongside Arcade, Nightmares, and Brainscan; whether that's a good thing is up to you. Grade: F (DVD release: tba)

3-31-06 -- Slither (Universal) -- It's wonderfully funny to note that the big studios are now focusing on stuff that, 20 years ago, would have come only from Roger Corman or Lloyd Kaufman, but the big boys love to dabble in the genre fare every once in a while ... especially when we're stuck in one of those "horror is HOT right now!" revolutions. Provided an ample budget and a free rein with his splat-happy tendencies, first-time director James Gunn (he wrote the Dawn of the Dead remake) mounts a sweetly sickening homage to the finest "alien invasion" epics ever made ... from The Blob to The Thing, and everywhere in between. Fun, freaky stuff, bolstered by a strong cast, some graphic goo, and a decidely snarky sensibility. Grade: B (DVD release: tba)

Grade Wrap-up:

January: D-, B , C-
February: B-, F, B, B-
March: B , F, B

Overall Term Grade: B

Barring a pair of get-rich-quick studio hack-jobs and one Uwe Boll flick, the past term has been pretty darn impressive. Roth's torture chamber, Aja's hellacious hills, and Gunn's icky invasion will stand up to repeat visits, provided you're even half the horror freak that I am, plus we were treated to a slick-yet-simple Carrie revision, a Part 3 that delivered the goods, and a bizarrely watchable Russian import. Too bad about the Underworld follow-up; perhaps Part 3 will be more stalky and less talky.

And the second quarter of 2006? Lionsgate's brilliant jailbait chiller Hard Candy, the seriously creepy looking Silent Hill, a fact-based ghost story called American Haunting, the wrestler-goes-slasher flick See No Evil, and the return of everyone's favorite hellraiser in an all-new Omen.