“O joyful. O delightful. O fortunate one. Weep no more, this departed son. Read these words. Sound thy voice. Revel and sing. Rejoice! Rejoice! Life’s for the living, not for the dead. Forget tomorrow. Live now instead. This night you breathe, while they cannot. So dance ye soul on their resting spot.”
It’s another double feature from Lionsgate and AfterDark. This one offers one of the best of the series with a rather flat companion. Of course, it’s that two-for-one thing that makes it so attractive anyway. Consider Gravedancers the main feature and Wicked Little Things that budget extra feature you used to get when you went to the old drive-in shows.
“O foul. O lout. O unfortunate one. The dead now mocked. Their time has come. Heed these words, for souls do roam and with this curse follow you home. Its rage will swell as nights grow bright. Despair and fear this final plight. From moon to moon you’ll have this guest to seal thy fate and lay you to rest.”
As the film begins we see a woman running from some unseen tormentor. She eventually puts a rope around her neck and jumps to her death. As she dies, she drops a black invitation card from her hands.
Enter Harris McKay (Purcell) and his wife Allison (Kramer) attending the funeral of one of their college buddies. Allison is a bit uncomfortable because she doesn’t want them to spend time with Kira (Maran) who was once one of Harris’s girlfriends. And from the moves Kira is making on Harris, she has good reason to strongly dislike the tramp. There’s also Sid (Thomas) who is the obvious smart-aleck in the group. After the funeral it is suggested that the four remaining friends go out for a drink in their deceased buddy’s honor. Allison declines. After all, she can’t stand these “old friends”, but Harris agrees to go with them. The drinks at the bar lead to the twisted suggestion by Sid that they all break into the cemetery and toast their buddy in style. After the obligatory reluctance, the three agree to the bizarre ritual. At the cemetery a lot of booze is consumed. Sid finds a black invitation card that looks exactly like the one dropped by our introductory unnamed victim. He reads the poem engraved upon the card and decides it would be cool to carry out the instructions. So the three hapless drunks dance a jig on three final resting places of the cemetery’s inhabitants. The activity appears harmless enough, if not more than a little creepy. But the action will lead to a chain reaction of horrific events.
At first it seems everything is okay. But the friends, along with Allison, begin to see apparitions and other strange occurrences. It eventually drives Kira to the point of insanity, and she’s locked up in a mental ward. It doesn’t take long before the other three begin to realize that they are haunted. Sid enlists the services of Dr. Vincent Cochet (Karyo) and his assistant … I mean colleague Frances Culpepper (Perry). They soon discover that the dance has caused unrest in the three spirits over whose graves they danced. It also turns out that they were in the section of the cemetery reserved for the town’s undesirables. That’s homicidal maniacs for the uninitiated. Now these spirits are driving them crazy and will kill them after a month of the torment unless our local ghostbusters can figure a way out of the curse.
The movie is actually a little more original than most of the entries in the group. The actors are also solid enough that the characters are real enough for us to actually care what happens to them. Director Mike Mendez does an excellent job with pacing and atmosphere to create a wonderfully suspenseful build here. It doesn’t really matter how predictable the story might actually be. Mendez gives us enough to care about that we might really hope these guys can figure the whole thing out. That’s the first half or so of the film.
It all comes apart a bit with the introduction of the paranormal investigators. Cochet is just a dour repetition that they are all pretty screwed here. Frances is, unfortunately, terribly played by Magahn Perry. I’m not sure if the part is just badly written or I should blame the actress. Either way she feels like a character in a much more amateurish film. The incredibly stilted dialog she’s given really doesn’t help matters any. The film turns into a bad Buffy episode as the team tries to research the curse and figure out a way to stop it. I think the film would have been better served with another vehicle here instead of these two characters. There’s too much of a mood change here, and it all gets much lighter.
The production values here are pretty solid. The set design in places like the cemetery are absolutely top-notch. There’s great attention to detail here, and it’s all shot wonderfully. Of course, everybody always digs these perfectly-boxed holes in the ground with just hand shovels. Have you ever dried to bury a pet? No one can dig holes like these without a backhoe. Some of the creatures are very well done. I get the feeling these guys used to read a few of the old EC Comics as kids. You see a lot of those fleshy skull looks that are absolutely rocking the creepy scale.
The cast is a good one. Dominic Purcell from Prison Break and Clare Kramer appropriately enough from Buffy make a great couple. They are absolutely natural here. Throw in the flirtation of Josie Maran as Kira and you get a very believable interaction here. That’s what makes these things so effective. When you have real people to care about, the stakes are always that much higher. This one has all of the elements to be a solid thriller … until that wild left turn with our Scooby Gang.
Wicked Little Things:
It’s an old Pennsylvania coal mine in the days before child labor laws intruded with their pesky rules to protect children from greedy mine owners. It seems these little tykes are the perfect size for crawling into small tunnels and placing those explosive charges. Hey, you have to expect some losses over time, and that’s exactly what happened. An explosion traps and kills a group of young children under the mine.
Fast forward to the present day. Karen (Heuring) is a recent widow. Her husband died of a long illness that pretty much wiped the family out financially. Her only choice to survive is to move herself and her two daughters to her husband’s familial home in the remote woods surrounding the dead Pennsylvania mining town. In tow is daughter Sarah (Taylor-Compton) who looks like she wanted to be in one of the Twilight movies instead. She has all of than teenage angst and rebellion that is only further fueled by the loss of her father with whom she was close. There’s also elementary-school-age Emma (Moretz) who appears to have a new imaginary friend at the house. The house and property are quite worn down. No one has lived here for a very long time. It doesn’t look like a good place for the grieving family to put down roots. The town’s economy is in the toilet. There’s a local developer who actually owns the rights to her property. Oh… yeah… and then there’s the story of the rug-rat zombies that come out after dark and tear people and animals to shreds.
The film was originally called Zombies. And there is something more than a little unsettling about these 2-foot living dead denizens that will give you a few chills. Lucky for director J.S. Cardone he doesn’t even need a lot of Savini-styled makeup to achieve his effect. All they really have going here is white pancake makeup and some dark edges around their eyes. These zombies don’t stumble a lot and move rather quickly. They use pickaxes and shovels to work over their victims. It seems these undead kids are looking more for revenge than creating an army of zombies to take over the world. They want the relative of the guy who left them for dead. Lucky for Karen and the girls, he’s also the one holding the deed to their property. It appears that these zombie kids won’t kill their own blood. Since one of them is predictably a relative of Karen’s dead husband, her children have some of that safe blood. Apparently, the kids don’t recognize in-laws, so Karen’s in a heap of trouble here.
The trouble is that Wicked Little Things or Zombies shares a common problem. There isn’t any new ground to be broken here, and the monsters, while creepy, aren’t all that terrifying either. The film was lensed in Bulgaria. Now there’s no question that the place offers an atmospheric bounty for this kind of movie, except when you’re setting the whole thing in Pennsylvania. Maybe it has more to do with the fact that I grew up in the keystone state and spend many of my misguided youth wandering around the various woodlands, but this does not look like where it is supposed to be. More importantly, it never feels like where it is supposed to be. The whole film ends up feeling more than a little awkward. You gotta love the originality of the kiddie zombies, but Children Of The Damned this is not. It’s worth a look only because you basically get it for free, and Gravedancers is absolutely a movie worth having. I call it the piggyback effect.
For both films the 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 20-25 mbps.
There’s a lot to love about this high-definition image presentation. Detail and sharpness offer you a chance to truly appreciate the wonderful set design here. The attention to detail comes across completely, allowing you to really pull yourself along for the ride. The creature designs are another element that gets enhanced in high definition. These creatures look pretty dang good. The effects folks earned their money in every frame of this budget film. Black levels are good enough to enjoy discernable shadow definition, particularly in the late night at the old cemetery. The image is a cut above its budget. All of the money shows up here… and then some. There’s often a lot of grain, but I wouldn’t categorize it as excessive. It helps to create atmosphere and provides just a little more texture and life to the image.
Wicked Little Things:
The Bulgaria location is quite an atmospheric addition to the film, even if it doesn’t really fit. Colors are solid but lean strongly to darker hues. The black levels aren’t as good as you should expect on a high-definition image presentation even if we are talking a budget picture. There’s not a ton of shadow definition. Much of what these mini-me zombies do in the darkness is obscured by the image properties. Of course, there was likely an intent to that, given the age of the actors and the level of graphic gore the filmmakers might have felt comfortable with. The kids’ images never do really stand out. I remembered that being a problem on the DVD, which I’m sorry to report isn’t solved with the Blu-ray. The opening scenes are in a sepia-tone that makes it look old. The rest of the film appears to lean a tad in that direction throughout. I’m not saying it’s a bad decision; in fact, it does work. I’m just saying it continues with my overall feeling that the image keeps me ever so slightly at arm’s length from what’s going on here.
Both films contain a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio presentation.
This is a rather effective audio presentation. While I wouldn’t exactly call the use of surrounds terribly aggressive, I would absolutely call it immersive and effective. The sound design uses the same attention to detail that allows the image to work so well here. There’s just enough ambient sounds around you to give you a full 360 degree experience without being overwhelming, or more importantly, distracting. Dialog comes through just fine.
Wicked Little Things:
The music takes me out of the picture more than the image does. I don’t quite know how to describe the score, but it is very annoying. It dominates and calls far too much attention to itself. The notes tend to sweep and then become discordant. Again, it’s a style that reminds you that you’re watching a film. Dialog is good, and I’ll admit that there are some quite effective sounds throughout the film. There is a good representation of the eerie woods with all sorts of creepy but subtle sounds surrounding you.
Both films come with an Audio Commentary.
All features are in standard definition.
Miss HorrorFest Webisodes: The search was on for the next babe to represent the 8 Films To Die For. They sent in their audition tapes, and these were aired online for the fans to vote on.
The following extras are for Gravedancers and feature commentary from Mendez. He sure likes to explain everything.
A Grave Undertaking: (13:41) Cast and crew offer the typical thoughts and bits of information. Of course, if you opt for the commentary here, you can’t hear the interviews. It’s an odd choice, indeed.
Deleted Scenes: (11:19)
Making The Ghosts: (12:19) An f/x feature that also gets covered up if you opt for the Mendez commentary.
Storyboards and Trailer
Of all of the films in this collection, I’d have to say that Gravedancers benefits the most with a Blu-ray release. The high definition will bring out more detail in this film and make it definitely worth the extra coin to buy it again. If you buy only one of these upgrades, this is the one to pick. You knew it was coming. I’ll bet you watched the original DVD release and kept getting distracted by such things as compression artifact and reduced resolution. You liked the movie. You thought it looked pretty cool, but it was just a little lacking in standard definition. This is the answer to that question you were left asking yourself: “There’s got to be a Gravedancers cure, right?”