Color, 1996, 94 mins.

Directed by Scott Reynolds

Starring Paolo Rotondo, Rebecca Hobbs, Jennifer Ward-Leland, Roy Ward / Produced by Jonathan Dowling / Music by Victoria Kelly / Cinematography by Simon Raby

Format: DVD - Trimark (MSRP $29.99)

Letterboxed (1.85:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital 2.0

A remarkable fusion of psychological horror with artsy supernatural thrills, The Ugly is a New Zealand import hampered from notice here thanks to an unworkable title and truly unappealing cover art (what were they thinking?). However, this is the kind of film whose reputation could easily build through word of mouth and the repeated viewings it richly deserves.

Dr. Karen Schumaker (Hobbs), a psychiatrist currently riding the wave of a media frenzy after freeing a noted serial killer, is called in to an institution at the request of its most notorious inmate, Simon Cartwright (Rotondo). The head of the institute (Ward, in a role tailor made for Jeffrey Combs) immediately reveals his disdain for Karen but begrudglingly allows her to question his patient. Through a startling mixture of flashbacks, shock cuts, and surreal fantasty images, Simon gradually unveils a nonsequential history of what made him the psycho he is today. After verbal and physical beatings at the hands of his unstable mother, grade school bullies, and his coworkers, Simon succumbed to the evil influence of "the ugly," his dark alter ego which forces him to kill at random to silence the voices within his head. Not surprisingly, Simon also turns out to be more clever and manipulative than he appears, and Karen finds herself pulled deeper and deeper into his seductive mania and ultimately must question the reality of what she sees around her.

While the premise may seem to tread on established serial killer favorites like Seven, Silence of the Lambs, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, The Ugly has quite a few nifty original surprises tucked up its sleeve. Most obviously, the film's startling use of color gives it a texture and haunting resonance unlike any other in recent memory; the blood spilled during the violent killings is black as pitch, dreamlike red lighting appears from nowhere, and eerie pools of blue often appear in the background to preclude the ghostly appearances of Simon's tormenters. The film also manipulates its audience through skillful use of sound, both through a subtly modulated Dolby soundtrack and, in one memorable sequence, alternating between deafening club music and complete silence to reflect two different characters' points of view. The two central performances are also extremely strong, and hopefully these actors will be seen again if this film ever reaches the eyes of anyone in Hollywood. Most amazingly, this is director Scott Reynolds' first feature film; one masterpiece out of the gate your first time around isn't too shabby, and he's definitely one to watch.

Trimark's DVD is generally satisfying; the extravagant gesture of an anamorphic transfer enhances the film's unsettling visual details, though it's still obviously not as crisp as more big studio releases. Though not mixed in 5.1, the soundtrack is effectively rendered and keeps the surround channels consistently active. This is definitely one film whose scare value increases exponentially with a good sound system. The unimpressive U.S. video trailer is also included, though some thorough cast and crew bios would have been appreciated. Don't just rent this film; buy it. It really is worth it.

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