An archive review from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · January 11, 2019, 12:55 AM EST
Dead Mary
DEAD MARY (2007)

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on January 10, 2007, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

With the glut of direct-to-disc horror these days, one of my challenges in compiling FANGORIA magazine’s monthly DVD Chopping List—which requires a one-line synopsis of each movie—has frequently been coming up with as many as half a dozen different ways of saying, “A group of youths travel to a remote house for a vacation, and encounter an evil presence” or “Teenagers are stalked by a killer seeking revenge for an incident years before.” Given how many low-budgeters rehash these two archetypes month after month, it’s refreshing to find a pair that do something a little different.

But if both movies are as notable for they don’t do as they are for what they do, I don’t want to damn Dead Mary (pictured, on DVD from Genius Entertainment) and Knock Knock (recently completed and currently seeking distribution) with too faint praise either. In each case, the filmmakers involved clearly cared enough to try to elevate their projects above the standard-issue stuff cluttering the shelves, and they succeed rather nicely.

Dead Mary sets itself apart right away through the fact that its six imperiled weekend vacationers are slightly older than the college-age norm. In fact, the only 22-year-old on view is Lily (Maggie Castle), new girlfriend of the 30ish Baker (Steve McCarthy), who gets ribbed by his pals about the age difference. (It’s a coincidence that the biggest name in the cast, Dominique Swain, first made her mark in a version of Lolita.) Other than Lily, these guys and girls have all known each other since college, and once they’ve all arrived at the remote lakeside cabin, they begin to take stock of the state of their lives and relationships. Meanwhile, this viewer glanced at the DVD clock counter and was relieved to find that at the half-hour mark, not once had there been a) a false scare as someone bumped into someone else with a loud music stinger, b) a drunk guy obnoxiously spouting off about getting laid or c) anyone taping the proceedings with a camcorder, accompanied by through-the-lens point-of-view shots.

On the other hand, there also hadn’t been much in the way of horror material, and more impatient viewers might take issue with the deliberately paced buildup employed by director Robert Wilson and scripters Peter Sheldrick and Christopher Warre Smets. But the characters are thought-out and acted well enough to hold interest, and the time invested with them pays off once they play the child’s game of repeatedly speaking the title witch’s name into a mirror, which is supposed to manifest her in real life. Despite what the cover art would have you believe, however, no monstrous crone shows up to start dispatching the ensemble one by one. Instead, Wilson and the writers are more inspired by John Carpenter’s The Thing, as Mary’s malefic presence begins murderously possessing the friends—only no one knows who among their pals is still themselves and who isn’t. Taking a further cue from Carpenter’s film, Wilson sometimes fades to black just as something unpleasant is about to happen, returning a little later in the story to keep us guessing about what has transpired, and the gambit still works.

Dead Mary’s narrative proceeds more logically than many of its brethren, and successfully maintains the tension of wondering who’s really evil. Once victims start being claimed, makeup FX creator Randy Daudlin’s handiwork is quite effectively gruesome, even if it’s neither copious nor extreme enough to truly warrant the big red UNRATED on the DVD package. This is Wilson’s second feature, and by all accounts a large step up from his previous Warriors of Terra, one of many recent “tracking a monster through a darkened lab” movies; give this man and his Dead Mary writers a truly original concept, and the results will likely be something very impressive.

Writer/director Joe Ariola, meanwhile, comes to Knock Knock fresh off the mob movie Coalition, and his horror debut also bears an Italian influence; it feels more inspired by gialli than by the children of Halloween and Friday the 13th. To wit, it focuses more on the adult characters involved in its murder mystery than the good-looking kids being systematically slaughtered. Like many teen slashers, this one’s got a gimmick: The victims are slain in tableaux reflecting their parents’ occupations, and in some cases the bloodied bodies are left at their folks’ workplaces. Who could be behind the grisly slayings? How about Troy (Sal Sirchia), the slow-witted high-school janitor who’s always leering at the hotter female students? In most stalker flicks, Troy would be a red herring lurking in the background, but here he earns Sirchia’s third billing, as the film goes home with him to reveal just how suspicious and twisted he is, with Sirchia quite convincingly deranged in the role.

Meanwhile, drunken veteran detective Mike Soto (Tony Mastrantonio) joins forces with younger and beautiful detective Billie Vega (Kim Taggart) to puzzle out the mystery. It goes without saying that theirs is something of a love/hate relationship, but the two actors have a nice camaraderie that carries the story in between murders. So does the neighborhood feel conveyed by shooting on New York-area locations, and the fact that, again harking back to an older style of murder movie, the revelation of the backstory behind the killings is saved for a flashback toward the end of the film, instead of laid out in an opening prologue. (It’s thus surprising that these details have been a key part of the film’s promotion, on its official website and elsewhere.)

Although the supporting performances and production values are occasionally shaky, Knock Knock ultimately delivers everything a slasher fan could want: good-looking (and occasionally naked) victims, startlingly bloody setpieces (with fine makeup FX work by Zombie Honeymoon’s Tate Steinsiek), a decent amount of suspense and enough departures from the norm to keep devotees from feeling they’ve rented this story 100 times before. Most important, Ariola throws in enough stylish flourishes (the best involves a crime-scene photograph) to make it clear there’s a filmmaker behind the camera, not an opportunist taking advantage of the genre’s current popularity. Once the movie makes its way to release, Knock Knock is worth answering.