Kolobos (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (22nd March 2019).
The Film

Kolobos (Daniel Liatowitsch & David Todd Ocvirk, 1999)

Synopsis: A mysterious woman runs out into an alleyway and is knocked down by a car. She is taken to hospital, where it is revealed that she has suffered serious facial injuries. These are treated but some of the doctors believe the injuries to be self-inflicted. The woman is unresponsive to questions; the only clue is the word ‘Kolobos’, which is the only phrase the woman has uttered since her accident.

Responding to an ad asking for ‘five free-minded individuals’ who are willing to spend a period of time in a house under 24 hour surveillance for ‘an experimental film’, five members of the public send in audition tapes: Tina (Promise LaMarco), an extrovert fast food waitress; an aspiring actress, Erica (Nichole Pelerine); Tom (Donny Terranova), a failing stand-up comic; Gary (John Fairlie), a slacker film student; and amateur artist Kyra (Amy Weber).

Arriving at the house that is to be their home for the period it takes to shoot the film, this quintet discover some bizarre scenes, including a roomful of mannequins in the basement and even more oddities in the attic. On their first evening in the house, they meet Carl (Jonathan Rone), who introduces himself as the director of the film in question. Carl is staying in a trailer in the back yard of the house.

As the evening progresses, Erica talks about her role, as an actress, in a series of direct-to-video slasher films called The Slaughterhouse Factor. Bored with the films, Tina retreats to the kitchen, where she unknowingly sets off a hidden trap. She is disembowelled by a blade which spins out of the floor. At the same time, a series of metal shutters ‘lock down’ the doors and windows of the house, preventing the occupants from escaping.

As the remaining members of the group try desperately to find a way to flee the house, Kyra begins to experience some increasingly disturbing visions and searches for her anti-psychotic medication. Meanwhile, the members of the group are picked off one-by-one.

Critique: Predating ‘torture porn’ vanguard Saw (James Wan, 2004) by five years, low budget indie horror picture Kolobos (Daniel Liatowitsch & David Todd Ocvirk, 1999) offered a bridge between the metafictional slasher pictures of the 1990s – Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) and its imitators, such as Urban Legend (Jamie Blanks, 1998) – and the prevalence of the ‘torture porn’ cycle during the early/mid-2000s (spearheaded by Saw but including the likes of Eli Roth’s Hostel, 2005). Ben Poole has stated that if Kolobos ‘was not a direct influence on SAW, then it is at least indicative of the horror zeitgeist circa the early 2000s; spectacles of pain and suffering, within enclosed, inescapable settings (the anxieties of Poe resurfacing au debut de siècle)’ (Poole, 2012: 26).

The core premise of Kolobos is typical of the bodycount/slasher movies post-Friday the 13th (Sean S Cunningham, 1980), featuring a group of young people trapped in an isolated location where they are subjected to various acts of cruelty and picked off one-by-one in the manner of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel Ten Little Niggers/And Then There Were None (1939). However, Kolobos’ examination of the modern world of ‘reality’ television made it somewhat ‘new’. The advertisement that the five young people answer states ‘Artist sees five free-minded individuals for ground-breaking experimental film [….] If you’re willing to laugh, cry, love, befriend, hate, betray and confess it all on VHS, I want you’. Subsequent to this, we are presented with the five audition tapes (by Kyra, Erica, Tom, Gary and finally Kyra) which are shown to the film’s audience from the POV of the video camera through which these audition tapes are recorded. Kolobos offers a satirical glance at the then-burgeoning popularity of ‘reality’ television shows like Survivor (1997) and Big Brother (1999), predating similar horror films of the early 2000s such as My Little Eye (Marc Evans, 2002) and Series 7: The Contenders (Daniel Minahan, 2001).

Additionally, Kolobos makes strong allusions to the horror films of Dario Argento (in particular, 1977’s Suspiria and 1980’s Inferno) through its use of primary coloured lighting gels (principally blues and reds), whilst its main title theme pays homage to Goblin’s score for Suspiria and Giorgio Gaslini’s score for Argento’s Profondo rosso/Deep Red (1974). One of the set-pieces, in which an unfortunate character has his teeth bashed out on the edge of a sink stand, also references a similar moment in Deep Red. The film’s knowing references to other horror films – particularly the baroque Italian horror pictures of Argento – felt at the time of Kolobos’ initial release very much in the wake of Kevin Williamson’s allusive approach to classic slasher films in his scripts for Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer (Jim Gillespie, 1997). Most obviously, this ‘meta’ dimension is foregrounded in Kolobos via Erica’s role in The Slaughterhouse Factor, the series of direct-to-video slasher films which she shows to the other members of the group during their first night in the house. ‘So it’s a Friday the 13th rip-off’, Gary says when Erica describes The Slaughterhouse Factor to the others. ‘It’s totally different’, Erica protests, ‘There’s a female killer’. The obvious joke is that this wasn’t particularly uncommon within the subgenre of slasher movies, and in fact the first Friday the 13th picture also featured a female killer (Mrs Voorhees). When Tina criticises Erica’s film (‘It sucks’), pretentious film student Gary tells her, ‘You obviously don’t appreciate the artistic value of cinema’. (‘Yeah, especially when it sucks’, Tina responds.) As Erica’s film continues to play on the television set, Tina wanders into the kitchen where she sets off a hidden trap, a sharp blade slicing up out of the linoleum-covered floor and disembowelling her. Tina’s death is cross-cut with footage of the VHS slasher film in which Erica starred, juxtaposing the low-tech methods of murder depicted in The Slaughterhouse Factor (a maniac in a mask who is armed with a large knife) with Kolobos’ emphasis on high-tech traps.

In some ways, Kolobos’ release during the very early days of the DVD format perhaps worked in the film’s favour: released direct-to-DVD in the UK, the film received mostly positive word of mouth amongst horror fans and in horror-themed publications. At the time of its initial release, the film’s narrative premise (a house in which the celebrity-hungry protagonists are recorded for a television programme) and its use of video footage invited some oblique comparisons with the ‘found footage’ approach of contemporaneous horror films The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez, 1999) and The Last Broadcast (Stefan Avalos & Lance Weiler, 1998). However, in truth the film perhaps has more in common with the infamous 1992 Sega CD FMV-based video game Night Trap, in which the player takes the role of a security guard tasked with watching a live feed from a house full of co-eds who are under threat from a group of vampires; the aim is to activate traps within the house to capture the vampires. The use within Kolobos of a ‘live feed’ from a sealed off house which is peppered with Wes Craven-style booby traps felt very much in the vein of Night Trap.

The narrative structure of Kolobos is perhaps surprisingly complex. It isn’t wholly clear until part-way through the picture that the bulk of the narrative is being presented as a flashback from the perspective of Kyra. In the film’s opening sequence, we see from her point-of-view as she desperately stumbles down an alleyway, her movements accompanied on the soundtrack by panicked breathing. A car hits her/us; the occupants clamber out and kneel around the camera. ‘Kolobos’, the mystery woman (Kyra) whispers. ‘Is that your name?’, a man asks. After a black screen, we come in on a POV shot from the patient’s perspective in an operating theatre, an overhead light surrounded by a gaggle of surgeons wearing masks. One of the surgeons states that Kyra was pretty but now she ‘ought to be thankful just to be alive’. On the audio track, we hear a multitude of voices mocking us/Kyra. Then we are presented with a number of scenes in which we/Kyra are spoken to – first by Dr Waldman (Kim Simms Thomas), who is in charge of Kyra’s care at the hospital, then by Detective Byers (Ivan Battee), who is heading up the investigation. Throughout, Kyra remains silent, verbally unresponsive to the questions that are directed towards her.

Once the viewer realises that the story is being told from Kyra’s perspective, the veracity of the information that is being presented by the audience within the flashback that makes up the bulk of the narrative becomes open to question: are we being presented with something similar to the infamous ‘lying flashback’ in Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950), for example? Is Kyra a reliable or unreliable narrator? Are her bizarre visions ‘real’ or imagined: are they a product of her psychosis? This suggestion comes fairly early in the film, through discussions about Kyra’s past and the macabre sketches which fill her sketchpad. Tina tells the other participants in the ‘experiments’ that she picked Kyra up at Harvel House, a halfway home for ‘freaks and psychos’. Aside from Gary, the other members of the group begin to treat Kyra with scorn: however, Gary tells them that ‘We could try to be a little supportive’, reminding the group that ‘Half of America is on Prozac’. As the story unfolds, within the flashback that makes up the bulk of the narrative Kyra begins to experience bizarre hallucinations – including a seemingly faceless entity slashing at her with a razor blade – which she initially believes are the consequence of not taking her anti-psychotic medication. (The bizarre nature of these apparent hallucinations is compounded by the fact that they are presented within an extended flashback – and so are potentially doubly unreliable.) Meanwhile, Erica suggests that Kyra’s misplacing of her anti-psychotic medication is ‘a good excuse to flip out and go on a killing spree’, adding that ‘If she [Kyra] isn’t the killer, then she definitely knows who is. Either way, she’s a menace’. Also, though the main narrative is presented as a flashback from Kyra’s perspective, a handful of scenes take place outside her point-of-view – such as when Tom and Erica discover Kyra’s drawings in the attic of the house. If the majority of the film is ‘narrated’ by Kyra and recollected as she lies in the hospital bed, how are we supposed to read/interpret these scenes?


Video

Filling a little under 25Gb of space on a dual-layered Blu-ray disc, Kolobos is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. The film is uncut, with a running time of 87:16 mins. Kolobos is presented in its intended aspect ratio of 1.85:1. (The film’s previous UK DVD release contained an open matte 1.33:1 presentation of Kolobos.)

Shot on 35mm colour stock, Kolobos gets a filmlike presentation on this Blu-ray, which is sourced from a 2k scan of the film’s negative. The source material has its limitations and quirks, presumably largely owing to the low budget. Some of the footage, especially in low-light scenes (eg, the scenes set in the basement of the house), looks like it was underexposed and then ‘pushed’ in an attempt to recover detail from the shadows, resulting in very strong grain and ‘flat’, depthless/textureless shadows. (See the last two of the full-sized screengrabs at the bottom of this review.) The reputedly very limited budget possibly led the filmmakers to shoot on whatever 35mm stock they could afford, or perhaps through inexperience they utilised motion picture film which was perhaps a stop or two too ‘slow’ for the low-light scenes. This results in an inconsistent appearance: brightly lit scenes are very ‘clean’ whilst low-light scenes appear to push the stock to its limits. A very small handful of scenes seem a little ‘hot’ in the highlights, as if they were slightly overexposed. Damage is limited though there are a few marks that appear here and there. (See the mark on the left-hand side of the frame in the third from last of the full-sized screengrabs at the bottom of this review, which appears in a couple of scenes and may or may not be either a mark on the film stock or an aberration in the lens used to capture some of the footage.)

All being said, however, and taking into account the apparent limitations/quirks of the source material the HD presentation of the film which appears on Arrow’s new Blu-ray release is commendable. Detail within this presentation is very good, the image conveying a sense of depth and texture. Colours are rich and consistent, especially noticeable during scenes in which the filmmakers use coloured gels on the lights; and for the bulk of the material contrast levels are pleasing too: for most of the film, midtones are even and defined, and shadows have a good sense of density to them. The presentation as a whole retains the structure of 35mm film, ensuring that the presentation as a whole is very filmlike and organic.

The presentation is very good, within the limitations of the material. Certainly, it’s a filmlike presentation and a big improvement over the film’s previous DVD releases.



Full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.

Audio

There are two audio options: (i) a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track; and (ii) a LPCM 2.0 steroe track. The 5.1 track has some added, atmospheric sound separation and doesn’t sacrifice ‘depth’ to communicate this. This surround track also articulates the film’s Goblin-esque score very nicely. Again, there are limitations within the source material: voices in the hospital scenes, in particular, seem detached from their source, almost like post-synched dialogue in a 1970s European film. Both tracks have good depth and range. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are provided. These are easy to read and accurate in transcribing the film’s dialogue.

Extras

The disc includes:
- Audio Commentary with Daniel Liatowitsch and David Todd Ocvirk. The two directors are clearly good friends and offer a balanced and engaging commentary to the film. They discuss the origins of the production and some of the logistical issues they faced making a film on such a low budget. They reflect on the casting and the contributions of the core cast members. They also talk about the film’s anticipation of horror pictures of the early 2000s that examined/satirised the world of ‘reality’ television.

- ‘Real World Massacre: The Making of Kolobos’ (22:10). This featurette looks at the production of Kolobos and features input from Liatowitsch and Ocvirk, alongside co-writer and producer Nne Ebong. They discuss how the trio came together to create Kolobos. They secured the support of executive producer Edward R Taylor but scuppered their original plan for a movie because of the practicalities of shooting it (a road movie script), opting instead to make a picture in a locked-down location. Inspired by Italian horror films (like Suspiria, Inferno and Michele Soavi’s Stagefright), Kolobos was also born out of a viewing of the MTV show The Real World. The film’s budget (£500,000) is discussed and the participants reflect on the characters within the film, and how these referenced the archetypal characters of both horror films and ‘reality’ shows.

- ‘Face to Faceless: An Interview with Actor Ilia Volok’ (9:44). Volok, who plays the mysterious maniac in the film, talks about his approach to acting in such heavy makeup. Volok admits that he found the role ‘a thrill’ and he reflects on the makeup process by which he was transformed into the character we see onscreen.

- ‘Slice and Dice: The Music of Kolobos’ (8:37). William Kidd, who composed the music for the film, discusses how he came to work on Kolobos. Kidd talks about his approach to scoring the film in detail.

- Behind the Scenes Image Gallery (32 frames).

- Short Film: ‘Superhelden’ (10:06). Shot on Super 8 by a 12 year old Daniel Liatowitsch, this short film is presented with an optional audio commentary by Liatowitsch. In his commentary, Liatowitsch talks about how ‘Superhelden’ was influenced by his viewing of Grease 2 at the cinema, and he reflects on how this short film led to the making of Kolobos.

- Rediscovering Kolobos (5:52). This short piece features Philip Escott introducing a screening of Kolobos in 2018, the UK’s first official cinema screening of Kolobos, and talking about his personal enjoyment of this picture. Liatowitsch and Ocvirk also offer comments in an introduction recorded for the cinema audience. Brief interviews with various bemused members of the audience follow, with most of them admitting not to have seen Kolobos previously.

- Trailer (1:14).

- 15th Anniversary Trailer (2:09).

Overall

Revisiting Kolobos after having only seen it once previously, about 20 years ago, it’s striking how much the film anticipated some of the trends of early 2000s horror pictures: for example, the small but notable wave of films satirising the ‘reality’ television phenomenon (such as My Little Eye and Halloween Resurrection), and the ‘torture porn’ cycle (which is usually cited as beginning with Saw). It’s perhaps a struggle to argue that Kolobos is a lost masterwork of the horror genre, but it’s certainly a better film than one might remember it to be – and watching the film via this HD presentation in the intended aspect ratio, whilst not a revelation exactly, certainly leads one to look upon the film more favourably. It’s an ambitious picture, the setting inducing a sense of claustrophobia, and the filmmakers weave a narrative that has some complexity and enough areas of ambiguity to encourage thought and discussion about the film. Arrow’s attempt at ‘rescuing’ Kolobos from the pit of obscurity is highly commendable, and though the limitations of the budget shine through in the film’s photography, the HD presentation of Kolobos on this disc is filmlike and would seem to be true to source. It’s also supported with some absolutely superb contextual material: the commentary from Liatowitsch and Ocvirk is worth its weight in gold in terms of inspiration for would-be low budget filmmakers, and the various interviews and featurettes help contextualise the film’s production. If you’ve only seen Kolobos via the old UK DVD release (or if you haven’t seen it at all), Arrow’s Blu-ray release is worth your time, as it’s a picture that – whilst not a ‘classic’ – certainly offers a good ‘stab’ (geddit?) at forging somewhat new territory in what is a well-worn subgenre (the slasher picture).

References:
Poole, Benjamin, 2012: Devil’s Advocates: SAW. Leighton Buzzard: Auteur


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