"Humans have the power to heal themselves ... the answer is in the brain".

An intriguing thought, which opens writer-director Steve Franke's 2006 feature debut SERUM ... before the film immediately dispenses with intrigue in favour of a sub-SE7EN-style montage opening titles sequence set to TV movie-type orchestrals.

The action then starts proper on "Tuesday, 9.45PM". We meet Edward (David H Hickey), who switches the lights off in the laboratory where he's been working tirelessly and retires to his office down an empty hospital corridor to write up his latest batch of notes.

A ruckus in the laboratory prompts Edward to run back there, where he's greeted by three night-watchmen who are furtively approaching the darkened room. Upon entry, they discover one of Edward's subjects - a young adult male in patient's vest - tucking into a hearty meal of human meat. The subject takes a bite out of a security guard's neck before being gunned to the floor by the other two.

"11.15PM": Edward is left alone in the laboratory, noting on his Dictaphone that his ongoing plight to invent a "cure all" serum has not yet been perfected. His latest subject, he notes, showed signs of aggression ... before being shot down. Edward beckons junkie morgue attendant Marx (Kevin Squires) to take the cadaver to the incinerator, arguing that the movements evident in it's limbs are nothing more than reflexes ...

The action then shifts to "10.25AM" the following morning, where we meet Walt (Bill Sebastian) and Eddie (Derek Phillips) - two blokes who look far too old to convince as the college dudes they're portraying. Walt calls round for Eddie at his home and excitedly tells of the graduation party that's been planned for the coming Saturday night. Furthermore, a street party has been organised for 9pm that evening as a prelude to the weekend's shenanigans.

After bumping into Eddie's hot stepmother Norma (Shawn Kurz) on his way out, Walt leaves while Eddie harbours thoughts for his ex-girlfriend Sarah (Lizabeth Cardenas). Will she be at the party, he wonders? Will she have a new fellow in tow?

Come party-time, the boys are ready for a drink and Walt is also up for some nookie. Eddie, meanwhile, has only two things on his mind: getting back with Sarah, and getting into medical college to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor. Just like his uncle, Edward ...

Meanwhile, as the clock continues to tick by in occasional on-screen text notifications, Edward continues his laboratory research while keeping the corpse-providing Marx happy with drugs and fending off budget withdrawals from his pharmaceutical financiers.

During a fraught early-morning business meeting with his financers where he's given one week to succeed in creating "the biggest medical breakthrough in history", Edward steps up his research ... telling his financier that he has one condition: he needs to drain the brain fluids, the elusive final ingredient for his serum, from LIVE donors.

The financial backers are understandably perturbed by this request. So, Edward tries another avenue - and accepts an invite to his brother Richard's (Dennis O'Neill) house for an evening meal. Here, he asks his brother to give him his share of their father's inheritance, promising that he is inches away from developing a potion that will cure all known diseases.

While at Richard's, Edward also meets his nephew Eddie and recognises the opportunity to use Eddie's aspirations to his own advantage. Oh, and the fact that Richard has also invited Eddie's estranged girlfriend Sarah to tea is inevitably going to get her roped in to events too ...

The night ends well for all concerned. Richard agrees to give Edward the money he needs, and Eddie patches things up with Sarah.

Thursday is another lumbering day, but Friday is where the initially slow screenplay starts to pick up a gear.

Following an altercation with Sarah's latest beau and a few beers too many, Eddie is ran over in the early hours of the morning. The family rush to hospital to be at Eddie's side ... including Edward, who persuades Richard that he will be able to nurse Eddie to health better than any hospital can.

Can you guess what happens? Who becomes Edward's latest test subject? Does it all go well, or does Eddie mutate into a brain-hungry monster? And will Sarah find herself in a position of jeopardy?!

SERUM is dumb, familiar fare that clearly owes a huge debt to RE-ANIMATOR. It's got a healthy level of gore and some decent lo-fi neck-tearing FX work, along with an above-average script that breathes welcome life into some likeable characters.

The main drawbacks of the film are it's miniscule budget which results in an often ugly-looking film, a bizarre penchant for on-screen time announcements that only serve to accentuate the slow pace, and an unconvincing monster that renders some of the kill scenes as highly amusing.

The scenes in the laboratory echo both RE-ANIMATOR and ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST (DR BUTCHER: MD, if you so prefer). But if you thought those films exuded a low budget charm, then this is seriously filmed on a budget of biscuits and nothing more.

But if you don't mind horror films that lack in finesse (or, indeed, continuity) and look a little rough around the edges - not to mention dark - then SERUM hits a few right notes with spirited performances, proficient editing and timely subtext on genetic experimentation.

The film is presented uncut in non-anamorphic 1.85:1. Colours are fair while images are a tad too dark and soft. There is minor digital noise on occasion and some motion blurring is evident. For a low-budget film offered on a low budget DVD though, the presentation is not so bad that it justifies being too sniffy towards it.

The English 2.0 audio is clear and consistent throughout.

The static main menu page leads into a static scene-selection menu allowing access to the main feature via 4 chapters.

As with the other Brain Damage discs, this DVD's only 'extras' are trailers for PREY FOR THE BEAST, DEATH OF A GHOST HUNTER, SECRETS OF THE CLOWN, SILENT BLOODNIGHT, TORTURE ME NO MORE and - of course - SERUM itself.

SERUM breaks no new ground and manages to walk straight into the pitfalls of many low-budget horror films: some bad acting, bad lighting, unintentionally funny "terror" scenes and so on. But all this cheesiness results in a film that can be viewed upon as a guilty pleasure. Very enjoyable, and quite gory too.

For �2.99, it's well worth a look and possibly the best of the initial Brain Damage releases.

Review by Stu Willis

Released by Brain Damage
Region 2 - PAL
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review