The Shock-o-Rama Entertainment 4-disc 'Suburban Psycho' box set can most charitably be called a 'curate's egg'. Varying wildly in quality (and theme, considering the films here are probably supposed to share one), the films run the gamut between barely watchable and pretty impressive, so this is an at-times testing viewing experience, though not without its merits!

First up, what seem like some early nods to The Blob descend into a sort of horror version of Location, Location, Location in Drainiac (2000), a peculiar, completely uneven tale of demonic plumbing. To be fair, I'm not sure it belongs in a box set of 'Suburban Psychos' so I was confused from the get-go by the endless horror to be derived from house renovations�

The story starts with two hobos quarrelling over a bottle of hooch in the woods. One spies a derelict house and they seek shelter there - though sadly, one of the men gets his face immediately melted by some toxic goo they find in the basement. We're then moved forward a few years to an unhappy teenage daughter/asshole father combo where dad has a passion for buying tumble-down houses which he does up to resell. Daughter Julie (Georgia Hatzis) gets roped into these schemes and she's sick of it, especially when her dad (Steven Bornstein) leaves her to clean at the erstwhile killer-slime house. Luckily some friends of hers arrive to help out.

You don't find out that the mischief in this house is caused by some sort of elemental spirit until quite close to the end, and bear in mind that due to the 'Suburban Psycho' schtick I was expecting a slasher film, so I was fairly baffled by the endless water-related SFX. Soaking flimsy blouses or looking so inviting that Julie peels off to take an impromptu bath, you name it - water is up to no good here. Just to keep you on your toes during an otherwise disconcerting montage of rogue piping the film throws in some surprise boobs, an attempted rape scene and a castration scene, before a rollneck-clad exorcist arrives to sort out the house's evil water spirits in a rather entertaining claymation scene reminiscent of The Evil Dead or the work of Charles Band (indeed, although the film was made in the late nineties it looks incredibly eighties). However, most of the exorcism SFX occurs in the last ten or fifteen minutes of the film and Drainiac is still incredibly slow and unwieldy. The box set contains a six-page booklet discussing director Brett Piper's efforts to make the film on a tiny $10,000 budget, and although it's a credit to anyone to get a film completed on that (let alone a film with some unusual, incongruous SFX scenes at the end) there are still many issues with this in terms of pacing/ acting which can't be excused away - not even by energetic bursts of nudity.

In terms of extras, this disc contains the film's trailer, an audio commentary, and information on acquiring the Alternative Cinema catalogue.

The box set continues with Skin Crawl (2007), a film which initially looks more promising due to its opening credits: Satan, blood, maggots, and the appearance of Troma star Debbie Rochon are all on the cards. The film opens with an 18th century scene, where three witches (including Rochon) are caught worshipping the mother-goddess by some rather lackadaisical witch-hunters. No burning at the stake here - they just take one of the girls away for a quick rape and somehow end up killing her. Her sisters vow revenge, and this time they pass on the proto-Wicca to appeal to Old Nick himself.

We never see this vengeance; instead we're whisked to the present day where Margaret (Rochon) is now an unhappy wife to Howard (Kevin G. Shinnick). She communicates this unhappiness by appearing to be whacked out on barbiturates although, to be fair, the revelation that she works in real estate explains a lot of that. When leaving work that day, she is kidnapped and stabbed. We variously find out that hubby has been having an affair with a sleazy, oversexed gold-digger (Julian Wells) who arranges the murder, and we see some of the machinations behind this arrangement, before the closing scenes when Rochon comes back from the dead and kills everyone responsible.

The potential for a satisfying Tales from the Crypt-style spousal vengeance romp is scuppered by the piecemeal plotting (Margaret's return from the grave is never conclusively linked to the opening scenes), poor film quality (with blacks appearing green, bad contrasts between lights and darks and patchy sound) and, the cardinal sin for me, endless padding to bring the film up to feature length. Lots of sequences of the film are looped over and over: there's little in the way of plot, but rather than create more plot, the film just repeats scenes or parts of scenes before moving forward. This is cynical, and highly irritating: the film is not so complex that it requires an endless rehash of footage in order to make sense! Where the film does deliver is in terms of sex scenes between actress Julian Wells - who is very game and actually fun as the villainess of the piece - and other cast members, so if you can forgive anything to see some flesh, then you might not find this completely hopeless. Otherwise, Skin Crawl is very poor stuff.

The DVD contains an extra with interviews of cast and crew and I almost felt bad when I heard the director animatedly naming the influences behind this film and cast members describing their favourite scenes but, sadly, they could almost have been talking about a different movie altogether. Also on this disc is a commentary, a 'Coming Soon' vault containing trailers for Bacterium, Creature from the Hillbilly Lagoon and Chantal, and a bunch of Shock-o-Rama trailers: you get Skin Crawl, Chainsaw Sally, Sinful, Shock-o-Rama, Feeding the Masses, Prison-a-Go-Go, Bite Me! Screaming Dead and Suburban Nightmare.

Next up is Psycho Sisters (1998), an overblown femme-slasher which at least boasts a huge cast of 'interesting' extras and attempts to go the extra mile in terms of creative angles and kills, but which, again, suffers from some truly lacklustre performances. We start in a psychiatric hospital where a woman called Jane (Christine Taylor) is being encouraged to talk about her troubled family background (cue violent flashbacks to the death of her parents in front of her and her two sisters). Jane then recounts what later happened to her sister Janice (who was raped and killed by a gang of men) before the psychiatrist decides to release her and her remaining sister Jackie (Pamela Sutch). Needless to say, they aren't quite ready for the outside world and start to vengefully butcher their way through the local male population, bumping off cops, reporters and horny bikers into the bargain. As the net closes, Jackie complicates things when she's attracted to, ahem, a guy who works in the sperm bank where she took a post-mortem sample from one of her victims in order to make some cash. Yes, you read that correctly: this element of the plot definitely deserves its own mention! Gradually everyone who has been tracking the sisters descends en masse upon the house of Jackie's love interest�

Once the premise is established, Psycho Sisters is not much more than a series of kills, but it's the first competent film in the box set so far (not least because it's the first to 'do what it says on the tin') despite dragging and despite its poor scripting. The quality of the film itself is much better than the previous films though, with better sound levels and crisper colours, albeit with that high-colour TV movie hue.

The straightforward misandry of the plot is notable and I think you just wouldn't get away with a similarly misogynist film along the same lines because, for all the plot's focus on female vengeance, there's a weird conflict where the sisters still each get their norks out and are often to be found denouncing men whilst bending over in small dresses�this is a lowbrow exploitation flick of course, and evidently this was never meant as a serious or subversive film but to be honest, the whole film would have hung together better if it had just been properly played for laughs. It all ends with black humour, and black humour would have worked well throughout as opposed to the mostly straight performances and the irritating loud melodramatics of actress Taylor. Unfortunately a sardonic twist just didn't appear organically and obviously just wasn't there in the bulk of the screenplay.

Alongside the regular trailer reel - most of the same Shock-a-Rama trailers appear on each of the first three DVDs - and another link to the address for the catalogue - there is an audio commentary available here. Psycho Sisters is a lot more watchable than its predecessors, for all its faults, and there's just about enough blood to render this a background beer movie where it wouldn't really matter if you missed the plot...

And so we come to the final film in this set, Suburban Nightmare (2004). I have to admit to a nagging feeling of dread when sitting down to watch this one after some of the offerings that came before it, but - guess what - this is decent, a well-scripted and acted film with a nasty twist. It's based on a story by the self-same Debbie Rochon who appeared in Skin Crawl (Ms. Rochon also produced this movie) and I was pleased to see Trent Haaga - star of Troma's Edge TV as well as a vast list of 'B' movies and indies - in a lead role here.

Charles (Haaga) and Deborah (Brandy Little) are going through some relationship issues. Domestic bliss is now only accessible through flashbacks; nowadays, all they do is carp and moan about how the other person 'doesn't listen' to them. Deborah wants another baby, but Charles doesn't think they're up to it. Oh, and did I mention Charles and Deborah first got together through a mutual love of serial killing? When Charles reveals he's invited guests for dinner, Deborah is angry - not because of the inconvenience, but because it was her turn to de-stress by indulging in a spot of murder and Charles has pre-empted her 'turn'. Men!

This is no mere squabble though: Charles reveals he's just had enough of all the arguments and his wife's terrible temper. He's thinking about leaving, even though that would mean leaving their young daughter Becky (Hayden Tweedie) behind too. Deborah, however, is not about to let go without a (literal) fight and the lovers' tiff escalates into all-out carnage�

This film is fairly plot-lite: despite the fact that these two would rather kill people than make endless trips to Ikea, this is still a domestic drama taking place largely within the confines of a home. This domestic drama happens to work well, where it could easily have been dull, because it is very well observed. Haaga is great as a man who would like a quiet life, but feels he has to defend himself against his wife's unreasonable behaviour, often using dry humour and sarcasm. The film belongs, though, to Brandy Little, whose performance here - with all of its impotent anger and petty jealousy - is very good indeed, and she convincingly moves from reasonable to insane in seconds. Juxtaposing marital breakdown with cannibalism and murder provides plenty of opportunity for black comedy and the filmmakers make the most of it. I particularly liked the scene where the police arrive to check out a domestic disturbance, and Deborah makes the most of Charles's fa�ade of good behaviour in her own twisted way- very funny stuff.

This is far and away the best film in the collection, balancing cynical humour with good observation and good performances. It borders on grisly slapstick in places and is almost touching in others, and, barring one erroneous-rather-than-brave plot line concerning child abuse, this is a compelling little film. It would seem that Shock-o-Rama know this is the best of the bunch, too, as not only do they use part of this film's promotional illustration for the box set's packaging, but they provide a lot of extras on this DVD. As well as an audio commentary, we're treated to a 'victim photo-shoot' where we get to look at some of the makeup techniques used; a short film looking at the motivations of the characters (which sounds dry but was actually rather fun); a more technical look at the set the set (which pointed out some neat little visual gags which I missed); some short films; the film's trailer, and, last but not least, a weblink.

So - there's a mixed bag here, and I think it's likely that at least a couple of these films have been added to this four-film release simply because they aren't good enough to stand alone (and it seems to have been done in a bit of a rush, judging for example by the repetition of trailers within this set). Aficionados of lowbrow cinema might yet enjoy the films included in this set on their own terms and Suburban Nightmare has enough about it to act redemptively on behalf of the box set. The trailers are pretty diverting too (and, in many cases, are more fun than the films).

Review by Keri O'Shea

Released by Shock-O-Rama Cinema
Region 1 - NTSC
Not Rated
Extras :
see main review