Strangeland (1998)
Artisan Entertainment
Cast: Dee Snider
Extras: Commentary Track, Production Notes, Music Videos

If someone asked me to describe "Strangeland" in three words, they would have to be sick, dark and twisted! Don’t get me wrong, I really liked Dee Snider’s Hollywood debut quite a bit. Not since David Fincher’s "Seven" have I seen a more unsettling motion picture. Unsettling is the operative word here however. The film is not a horror film in the traditional print and is not really viscerally scary, but it creates an intensely disturbing atmosphere that I found remarkable.

Scouting Internet chat rooms for prey, Captain Howdy (Dee Snider) is using the web’s anonymity to invite two teenagers to a party at his house. Unaware of the fact that they have just fallen victim to a cyber predator, Genevieve and Tiana decide to go and meet the seemingly cunning person they just met in the chat room. When the girls don’t return home their parents, lead by Genevieve’s father, detective Mike Cage, start looking for clues and eventually they learn about the Internet chat rooms their daughters were surfing. Cage spends some time online with a fake handle and before long he grabs Captain Howdy’s attention. After a failed police raid on his house as a result of the online conversation, Howdy knows about the detective’s true identity and starts playing with the authorities – until one night Cage takes matters in his own hands and decides to turn the tables.

Dee Snider tried to create a new ultra-nasty bad guy that is memorable and obviously lends itself to a franchise. While his character Captain Howdy is in fact a sick masochistic antagonist, the fright factor of the film has to be attributed more to the matters at hand and the authenticity of the picture than the actual villain himself. Maybe living in Southern California makes me a little more sensitive to the disturbing subtext of the film than people who live in safer areas of the country, but I found "Strangeland" a truly bizarre and disquieting experience.

Completely unlike what I had expected, and completely unlike the mindless teeny horror flicks we have seen lately, "Strangeland" has a mature note that immediately hit a string with me. The film is by no means perfect, but for Snider’s writing and acting debut it is a film that he can certainly be proud of. What impressed me the most was the film’s cinematography. Using plenty of shadows and murky interiors to heighten the sense of danger and inhumanity in Captain Howdy, the film also uses a remarkable camerawork with intense framings that slowly but gradually build tension until the lens finally captures what we have been waiting for all this time. Unfortunately the plot contains gaping holes and the characters remain so distant throughout the film that the viewer doesn’t really care much about them. Interestingly however, I constantly found myself thinking how many people in the real world are actually subjected to this kind of terror, which in turn made me think about the film a little more.

From the abuse of the Internet to hunt innocent victims, all the way to the sadomasochistic fetishes, self mutilation and goth-rock punk clubs, this film is much more contemporary than any other horror film I have seen in a long time. The horror in this film does not come from the torture inflicted on its victims. The true horror in this film is our world. The fact that we are literally helpless when it comes to crimes committed through the anonymity of the Internet. It is a macabre modern tale of how volatile our society has become through the anonymity of modern communications. Don’t look for the visceral horror in this film or you will be disappointed. This film lives off its subtext.

Artisan Entertainment have given "Strangeland" a nice treatment for this DVD release. The disc contains a <$16x9,16x9 enhanced> <$PS,widescreen> version of the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The image is well defined and quite sharp. As a stylistic component the film makes ample use of darkness, shadows and deep blacks, and it is important that the transfer maintains all these shadow details. This is not really a challenge for this disc. However, the film print exhibits quite a bit of grain in some scenes, which is also visible on this DVD. This grain is supposedly a result of the high-speed film material used to lens those ultra-dark shots. The compression is flawless not only maintaining all these details, but also giving the film strong color saturation with deep blacks and good highlights. There is no <$chroma,chroma noise> or color bleeding evident on the disc.

To enhance the ominous images on the screen, the disc contains a <$DS,Dolby Surround> soundtrack. The soundtrack makes effective use of the limited surrounds to create a lively ambience for the film. Consisting mostly of modern rock and punk tunes, the film’s soundtrack perfectly matches the story.

You can also find a <$commentary,commentary track> by Dee Snider on this disc, but quite frankly it turns into a sales pitch too often for my taste, without really revealing too much background information. Nevertheless it is an entertaining track and Snider points out a few interesting tidbits about the people in the movie.

As bonus materials, "Strangeland" also contains production notes and a number of music videos of songs from the movie. Made up almost like an MTV segment, the videos are introduced by Dee Snider himself, but once again, he is falling into too much of a sales pitch for my taste, and I just can’t share the enthusiasm he is displaying for the bands and their videos. The film’s trailer that is advertised on the packaging is missing from the disc.

I believe "Strangeland" is a highly underrated movie and it is hard for me to understand why it got so little attention at the box office or why it got shredded by critics. I found this to be a really disturbing film. I was fascinated by the film’s authenticity, and the dark, ominous images that never got really gory. It is actually hard to categorize "Strangeland". On one hand it is a very dark thriller and on the other hand it is unsettling and visceral like a horror film. Artisan have really gone to lengths to make this a great looking release. In a time where most people equate horror with teeny-slasher movies, "Srangeland" was a very welcome alternation.