So todays review is something a little special, a film I had been dying to get my mitts on since I heard Fabio Frizzi was involved in the soundtrack (back when we interviewed him last October). I am talking about Todd Sheets latest movie House of Forbidden Secrets; which has been attracting fantastic reviews from the festival circuit of late. Desperate to get stuck in, and it being a gloriously sunny day outside (for a change), I draw the curtains and get settled down to view it. There is always that danger that when the anticipation is high things rarely fail to live up to that level of excitement. In this case however I made a point of trying to not get too carried away with myself and went into this with a level head; as such the film actually managed to exceed my initial expectations.
You have to hand it to Todd Sheets, after suffering well documented serious health problems, he is back in the director’s chair, as well as writing, producing and providing the cinematography on House of Forbidden Secrets. My first impressions of the film were that Todd has made this with a hell of a lot of love and respect for the genre, but then with nearly 30 years in filmmaking he can be called an old hand when it comes to making genre films. The narrative is tight and absorbing, and the story snakes around the central plot line bringing with it plenty of unexpected twists and turns. Before I get carried away with myself I am going to stop there and point out this film will not be for everyone, it is low-budget, the zombies look like death metalheads, it carries a very distinct retro direct to video horror feel (in my opinion plus points). But if you are a regular at The Gore Splattered Corner I am going to assume this will be your bag as much as it is mine, and I will continue. One thing is for sure House of Forbidden Secrets was a damned sight more entertaining than anything that has spewed out of the mainstream of late. It just goes to show it doesn’t matter how many bazillion dollars they throw at World War Crap or whatever it is if the heart isn’t there, the fans are going to know, and your film is going to suck, (and that’s not in a good way, that’s in a your film is boring way).
The plot for House of Forbidden Secrets takes some rather unconventional turns, and I am not going to give any of them away, just try to pull out some highlights. We have our leading man Jacob Hunt (Antwoine Steele) a night-watchman on his first shift at a new job. It just so happens that psychic Cassie (Nicole Santorella) is holding a séance in her shop (in the same building) that night, to try and contact poor Dorothy Fremont’s (Iris Runyon) late husband. Obviously things go awry and then the fun begins. By ‘fun’ I mean the following; zombies, bible bashing cult zombies to be exact, people disappearing, cool vintage flashbacks, murder, mayhem and carnage, burlesque brothels, people getting ripped open and eaten, then there is someone being raped by a zombie (a very pretty zombie at that). Throw in plenty of gore, and some blood-soaked boobies, we have a winner. I am not doing the plot much justice here, for a movie of this type it is extremely well structured, and dare I say it compelling to watch. You just have no idea where things are going to lead you, and the ending caught me completely off guard. I also really enjoyed the little moments of humour littered around the script, all very tongue in cheek and dark, and there are some great one liners which pop out from time to time. Without going any further than I need to I will also mention there is a vintage set piece which was goretastic and made for my favourite part of the film. Injected into this is an obvious passion and so many little genre nods to other films that it is beyond the scope of this review to mention them all; although Fulci’s The Beyond gets some noticeable winks.
Then there is the atmosphere, which is loaded up with eerie dread for a lot of the running time. Sheets uses a number of tropes to pull this off, because location wise the building this is shot in looks like your typical mundane office block/conference centre thing; there really is nothing remarkable that stands out to aid things along. However by using various lighting techniques such as shadow, and some very Argento/ Mario Bava-like coloured filters, the location takes on a haunted house vibe. While I am on the subject of atmosphere I am going to have to talk about the soundtrack, which was after all the factor which brought this film to my attention. Composed by the Italian maestro Fabio Frizzi, with additional music by Toshiyuki Hiraoka, the soundtrack really is something special; with Frizzi on top form. Unrelenting, very reminiscent in part of the work Frizzi did on The Beyond, the music which underpins this film really drives the narrative on and holds up the ambience and the mood perfectly. It also gives the feature a really fabulous retro 80’s feel.
Sheets has assembled a pretty extensive cast for the making of this film, with some known names amongst the cult horror community. Starring is Lew Temple (Walking Dead/ Devil Rejects) who hams it up in his role as pervy priest Elias. I couldn’t really work out if he was doing this pantomime villain act on purpose, but it worked whatever his intention; either way he seems to be having a lot of fun. Nicole Santorella as Cassie makes for a capable leading girl, alongside Antwoine Steele (Prison Break) as Jacob (he has a few great one liners, and a bit of an attitude to boot), and then there was stoner/maintenance man Jackson played by Bryan David who provided quite a few moments of comedy. Best scream goes to Paxton Tarbell as Hanna, boy that girl has got a good set of pipes on her. While the acting range is varied, but this is expected, it just goes with the territory. The stand out performance has to go to Ilsa star Dyanne Thorne who was brilliant and just stole all her scenes as the no nonsense brothel mistress and aptly named Greta. George Hardy from Troll 2 turns up in a small part as the building manager Bruce and manages to sneak his iconic ‘you can’t piss on hospitality’ line in, and Allan Kayser breezes through his scenes as handyman Brad with some fantastic dialogue. Troma legend Lloyd Kaufman takes on an equally small, but very entertaining, role as a drunken babysitting Grandpa, who encourages his charge to watch The Toxic Avenger with him, while he swigs down a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream. Also look out for a cameo from filmmaker Jill Sixx Gervargizian in the brothel scenes.
Before I wrap things up last but not least I have to mention the gore, and there is a fair bit. The grue rules the day as things get downright sticky and squishy. There are some brilliant moments too including a machete decapitation, stabbings, blood spraying, chowing on innards, and lots of disembowelling with offal pouring out here and there, to feast your eyes on.
In essence House of Forbidden Secrets is not a perfect film by any means. Bound by budgetary constraints it has the usual limitations which are to be expected with this type of movie; not that this matters to this reviewer. For those who love, and miss, the good old direct to video trashy horror days this film definitely cries back to that time when horror carried a spirit of adventure and innovation. But then filmmakers like Todd Sheets are the backbone of the genre and no one could accuse him of not paying in his dues. This is a film made very much by fans for fans. Whatever it lacks in finance it makes up for in enthusiasm and care by the bucket-load. The story has great structure; carries an unpredictable plotline, it is fun, engrossing, with a great ending which I for one did not expect. Which is a lot more than you can say for some of the recent bigger budget ventures the genre has had to offer. Very worthwhile checking out.
Official Site here