Hatchet (DVD)

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Available on DVD Tuesday, December 18th

Cast:

Joel David Moore as Ben

Tamara Feldman as Marybeth

Deon Richmond as Marcus

Kane Hodder as Victor Crowley/Mr. Crowley

Mercedes McNab as Misty

Parry Shen as Shawn

Robert Englund as Sampson

Tony Todd as Rev. Zombie

Directed by Adam Green

Movie:

By the time Adam Green’s “Hatchet” finally cut across screens in a limited theatrical run, its reputation as “old-school horror” was already as solid as an axe blade thanks to a year’s worth of festival screening acclaim, online banter, and a razor-sharp ad campaign from distributor Anchor Bay. But in an age when reactionary nostalgia breeds a desperate longing for the good ol’ days, and when word of mouth travels much faster than any film print, it’s easy for a flick to falter under its own hype and retro-ethic. “Hatchet,” however, as its director points out in his audio commentary, isn’t meant to recreate the bygone films that inspired it – just to remind us of what we like about them. Anchor Bay’s unrated DVD release of the film does just that, infecting the viewer with the same passionate enthusiasm that drove Green to create his backwoods-killer opus.

Though frequently cited as a direct throwback to the heyday of latex-laden madmen stalking forest prey, “Hatchet” actually establishes a distinct modern aesthetic right from the start. This is early ‘80s grit filtered through a contemporary gloss. Two rural residents floating in a New Orleans bayou (one played by a surprisingly inconspicuous Robert Englund) meet their brutal demises at the hands of an unseen killer in the film’s prologue, and while this set-up is typical of the low-budget fare that proliferated two decades back, its execution is clearly present-day. Symphonic splashes of blood coat nearby trees with reckless abandon just before a Marilyn Manson song pounds over the opening credits. From here the film jumps into its briskly paced plot, establishing our would-be hero Ben (Joel David Moore), his grudging friend Marcus (Dion Richmond), and a group of wayward swamp tourists — and stranding them in a murky mess — all within a matter of minutes.

Green populates the spooky swamp excursion with some fresh and entertaining types, including a rookie tour guide forcing a terrible N’awlins accent, a hotshot videographer filming a “Girls Gone Wild”-style compilation, his two catty starlets, and a middle-aged couple so perfectly portrayed by Richard Riehle and Patrika Darbo that you’re sorry to see them dispatched so quickly.

But it’s not until Darbo’s show-stoppin’, head-splittin’ death that “Hatchet’s” bloody heart really starts pumping. As we learn from a young woman on the tour to find her missing father (the now-deceased Englund character from the prologue), our troop is trespassing on the home turf of local legend Victor Crowley, a deformed child once teased endlessly by other kids until a Halloween prank led to his tragic death at the hands of his own father, who accidentally buried a hatched in Victor’s head while trying to rescue him from their burning shack. Ever since, this swamp has been off-limits – the only way to stem the mysterious disappearances plaguing the area.

Once our bunch arrives, though, there’s no stopping the slaughter. The blood pours furiously as Victor (the hulking Kane Hodder in a classic John Carl Buechler make-up design) hunts them down and exterminates them in a variety of notoriously inventive ways. It is here that “Hatchet” most closely resembles its predecessors, soaked in shadows and spiked with some of the most aggressive and impressive kills we’ve seen in years. Hodder gives the best performance of his career, conveying something special in his depiction of Victor Crowley despite being covered in rubber and paint.

“Hatchet” doesn’t necessarily hit every mark. There’s little originality here outside of the death sequences, some of the humor sinks to the bottom of the Louisiana swamp, and at times the film falls victim to the same tedium affecting any film of this ilk, but Hodder and director Green manage to keep us engaged, even if we may find ourselves fast-forwarding from one kill to the next. The film’s aims are humble and honest; it yearns only to share shelf space with the rural slashers of yesteryear, and it definitely earns its spot.

The unrated presentation reinstates several splatters of gore excised from the theatrical cut, and in a film like “Hatchet,” these restored snippets are crimson gold. Their red hues come across deep and vibrant in the widescreen transfer, which may be a tad too dark at other points in the film, but nobody picks up a copy of “Madman” or “Don’t Go in the Woods” expecting Criterion Collection-clarity. The screams, grunts, and squishy crunches all come through perfectly on the 5.1 audio track, with the companion 2.0 track serving as a wholly acceptable substitute.

Extras:

Audio Commentary with writer/director Adam Green cinematographer Will Barrattt, and actors Joel David Moore, Tamara Feldman, and Deon Richmond: Despite a few absurd electrical difficulties that apparently struck just as this track was being recorded (this may be the first audio commentary recording to be powered by car battery), Green and his companions soldier on through a casual and entertaining chat that primarily highlights the principle production of the film. Green leads the discussion, meandering smoothly and effortlessly from on-set recollections to personal anecdotes to incidental clues about what might lie ahead in “Hatchet 2.”

The Making of Hatchet: Writer/director Green opens this hour-long doc relaying the summer camp tale that ultimately became the legend of Victor Crowley – and almost got him yanked from camp at the age of 8 for terrifying the other kids. Green is instantly endearing, and his lifelong desire to bring “Hatchet” to fruition makes an engaging framework for a behind-the-scenes look the making of the film. Key players both in front of and behind the camera detail their relationship to the production, including a certain horror journalist who lent his Rotten support to the film early in its development.

Meeting Victor Crowley: Brief but fascinating, this Hodder-centric short focuses on citizen Kane’s unique approach to playing a homicidal maniac. The on-set cameras capture Hodder in numerous capacities, from coordinating stunts to plotting late-hour pranks and shenanigans (including the hurling of a fake hatchet at a cast member who thought it was real), proving beyond any lingering doubts that the massive actor is much more than just a stuntman in a mask.

Guts & Gore: FX maestro John Carl Beuchler’s elaborate kill sequences take center-stage in this featurettte, particularly the film’s most infamous (and most notoriously improbable). Aspiring FX artists won’t find much of instructional value here, but the material is entertaining nonetheless.

Anatomy of a Kill: Buechler appears again here to provide a step-by-step dissection of Darbo’s exquisitely executed death scene, revealing how multiple shots were fused together to create the illusion of a single take, as well as the extensive logistical problems encountered in putting this short but essential sequence on film.

A Twisted Tale: The only truly expendable feature among the bonus materials is this short spot on the burgeoning friendship between writer/director Green and Twisted Sister frontman/horror fan Dee Snider. Their relationship is inspiring, but the featurette feels misplaced here.

Gag Reel: Living up to its name much more than most compilations of on-set mishaps, the most noteworthy clip within this short collection features actor Moore’s various attempts at on-cue regurgitation (something Hodder himself is reportedly skilled at).

Trailers: The original theatrical trailer for “Hatchet” may be creepier than anything in the film, but the real gem here is the clip for “Beyond the Mask: the Rise of Leslie Vernon.” Trailers for “Spiral,” “Karas: Revelation,” and Anchor Bay’s horror line are also included.