Color, 2000, 92 mins.

Directed by Geoffrey Wright

Starring Brittany Murphy, Michael Biehn, Jay Mohr, Candy Clark, Gabriel Mann, Joe Inscoe / Written by Ken Selden / Music by Walter Werzowa / Cinematography by Anthony B. Richmond

Format: DVD - USA (MSRP $24.98)

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

As if we didn't already know that studios have completely lost any idea how to handle a horror film, USA dropped the ball by sending two worthy, witty, gore-filled entries straight to video while cruddy Scream knockoffs populate the multiplexes. While neither are classics by any stretch, Cherry Falls and Terror Tract make for a solid evening of creepy viewing and could have been quite successful had they been released in a more permissive age.

First up is Cherry Falls, the controversial American debut for critic turned director Geoffrey Wright (Romper Stomper). Essentially a reversal of the promiscuity equals death mantra of '80s slasher films, this isn't exactly a spoof; in fact, it somehow manages to capture the exact atmosphere of films like My Bloody Valentine and He Knows You're Alone, which may seem alien to entire generations of horror fans. In the opening sequence, a young virginal pair of teens preparing to go all the way find their plans interrupted by a knife-wiedling assailant outside their car. The case is handled by Sheriff Marken (Michael Biehn), whose daughter, Jody (Clueless' Brittany Murphy), goes to the victims' high school. The English teacher, Mr. Marliston (Jay Mohr), tries to help the students cope with the tragedy, which is quickly followed by another brutal slaying. The murders are all connected by one element: the word "virgin" carved into the victims' flesh. Soon Jody has a close encounter with the maniac, apparently a gaunt woman with long black, gray-streaked hair. When word breaks out across the school about the killer's modus operandi, the students come up with a novel, perverse method of removing themselves from consideration as the next victims.

Originally slated for a 2000 theatrical release, Cherry Falls became a major problem for USA after it was repeatedly slapped with an NC-17 rating. Rumours abounded on the Internet about graphic footage supposedly removed during the ratings submission process; even worse, after countless aborted theatrical dates, the film finally showed up first in America on the USA Network in an incoherent, butchered version devoid of almost all bloodshed. At least Cherry Falls has other strengths, such as Wright's strong visual sense, an engaging central performance from Murphy, and a habit of throwing in strange, kinky grace notes in the least expected sequences, such as a toe fetish semi-sex scene and the unforgettable exclamation, "It's a hymen holocaust!" On the other hand, the killer's identity comes as no surprise whatsoever, though at least it does offer a bizarre visual punchline.

When USA ran a test screening of the film immediately before its first MPAA submission, Cherry Falls was not drastically different from the version ultimately used for the DVD. Primarily this R-rated cut subtitutes some alternate shots during a few brutal flashes of violence; for example, an early series of subliminal flashes depicting a young girl being crucified to a tree replaces a gruesome close up of her wrists being nailed with a different shot of her screaming instead. Fleeting trims amouting to only a few seconds in total were performed on the discovery of another body "overhead" and during the climactic assault, while the opening murder features some awkward frame skipping to soften the scene's impact. In short, the differences are marginal at best and hardly justify the fracas raised about the NC-17 rating.

Apparently discouraged by the failure to turn Cherry Falls into viable theatrical material, USA has rushed it onto disc with little care. The 16x9 transfer looks fine, with solid colors and good black levels, but the surround soundtrack is simply terrible. Dialogue is muffled and poorly mixed, while the surround effects are harsh, muddy, and far too loud. Even through basic television playback, the audio comes off poorly and feels wildly unbalanced. Amazingly, the disc doesn't even contain the theatrical trailer which ran in some theaters before USA's Halloween release plan was yanked.

If Cherry Falls is a throwback to gimmicky '80s slashers, Terror Tract jumps back to the hoary days of horror anthologies before the days of Tales from the Crypt. Reminiscent of '80s multi-story horror confections like Creepshow and Nightmares, as well as their Amicus antecedents from the '70s, this amusing and frequently surprising sickie in many outdoes its companion film. For once the framing story is a real grabber, with John Ritter starring as Bob Carter, a desperate real estate agent trying to persuade a young couple (Allison Smith and David Deluise) to buy a house in a seemingly normal neighborhood apparently rife with violence and supernatural events. In each of the three houses he shows, Carter relates the horrifying story of the past owners. The first and weakest story concerns a woman, Sarah Freemont (Rachel York), whose husband learns of her adulterous affair with the local stud, Frank (Carmine Giovinazzo). Hubby's gruesome retribution backfires, but Sarah and her lover's attempts to dispose of his body don't quite work as planned. The second and most blackly humorous yarn features Bryan Cranston (the dad from Malcolm in the Middle) as a father driven to the brink by his daughter's pet monkey, Bobo, who has developed a nasty habit of offing anyone who stands in its way. In the third and most frightening tale, Sean Goodwin (Will Estes) has developed the ability to witness terrifying murders before they happen through the eyes of the Granny Killer, who wears a creepy old lady mask. Sean relates his plight to a psychiatrist (Brenda Strong) who begins to believe Sean may be the killer himself...

Better than anyone would ever a right to expect, Terror Tract unquestionably delivers the shocks and features some great nods to past horror films ranging from Monkey Shines to Dressed to Kill, though the showstopping final scene is really a delirious feat all its own. The opening sequence, in which a succession of animals prey on each other around the neighborhood, is a fun throwback to the days of Cat's Eye. Horror fans should especially enjoy the last story, a gruesome piece of audience manipulation with a nifty little sting in the tale.

Luckily USA's transfer of this film is substantially better than Cherry Falls; the surround audio is quite satisfying, while the image is sharp, clear, and pleasing to the eye. It's a shame virtually no one outside of overseas screenings and film festivals ever had a chance to see either of these films as intended, but at least they're available to home viewers as a reminder that decent horror films are still being made; they're just much harder to find.

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