Arrow Video - If Lucio Fulci Directed A Season Of The Real World: Kolobos (1999) Reviewed

If you were a horror fan in the video store era, there is a chance that you might remember the VHS box art for 1999's Kolobos. More specifically, there's a chance you might remember the box art for Kolobos being pretty terrible, and like most viewers you probably skipped over the film. The late-90s was not a great era for horror, and especially not for straight-to-video horror, as the market was flooded by a bunch of bad, nondescript, shot-on-digital-video cash-ins on the teen-horror revival sparked by the success of Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson's films like Scream, The Faculty, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Cursed. And in the days before we all had the internet in our pockets to look up reviews in-store, movies generally lived or died by how well their box art lured people in; meaning both that we all suffered through a lot of bad movies with intriguing covers, and that some better movies fell through the cracks because their unremarkable marketing got them lost in the shuffle. Kolobos was definitely one of the latter: the front cover made it look like some kind of bad ripoff of The Relic, while turning the box over immediately revealed the deceptiveness of the artwork (it is not a monster movie, and never pretends to be one), but instead made it look like one of a million bad Scream knockoffs with a premise cashing in on the then-new trendiness of The Real World. No one can be blamed for writing this off as probably a terrible movie and not bothering to rent it; I am certainly one of those people who assumed this, and rented something else. So I was very surprised when Arrow Video announced a special edition blu-ray, and proclaimed the film to be an unfairly overlooked should-be-cult-classic. It turns out that they are (to a degree) right: while there are ways in which Kolobos betrays its low-budget straight-to-video production values, this is a surprisingly very fun, atmospheric, nasty, and deliriously off-the-wall film, which borrows far less from Scream than it does from Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. We were missing out in 1999: with better marketing, this really could have been a fan-favorite of the era even with its flaws, as it contains not only a lot to like, but a handful of genuine surprises that managed to catch me quite off-guard.

"Well, we may be dying one by one, but at least this isn't hosted by Flavor Flav." 

The Film:

On its face, this absolutely sounds like a cheesy – and very 1999 – slasher version of The Real World: five twentysomething (most of whom are pretty obvious 90s character archetypes) agree to live together in a house where their every action will be recorded by hidden cameras, but it soon becomes clear that there is a killer in the house, and they are actually the stars of an elaborate multicam snuff film. But we quickly realize that we may be in for something very different when the film begins with a strongly Argento-influenced opening sequence: Goblin-inspired music over a credits montage of very creepy drawings and paintings, shots of black gloved hands setting up the hidden cameras, and menacing steadicam shots as a bloody would-be victim runs for her life through dark alleys. It's a strong beginning, and not the beginning that you would expect. After that, though, Kolobos goes back to being basically just what you would expect for its first half-hour or so. Aside from our main character, Kyra (Amy Weber), a troubled young artist whose mental health struggles have, until recently, manifested in self-harm and horrifying hallucinations, the other “contestants” on the reality-show-turned-bloodbath are basically a bunch of stock 90s-twentysomething archetypes. There's the party-girl, the obnoxious dude-bro, the self-serious sweater-wearing film student, and the B-movie actress who just wants to be taken seriously; all people we've seen in countless other films of the time, and there isn't as much postmodern humor in the mix as there was in Scream (though there is some). In keeping with the film's straight-to-video production, most of them are saddled with pretty cheesy dialogue, and most of them are pretty poorly acted, with the exceptions being the Ben-Stiller-ish John Fairlie as the film student, and Amy Weber, who gives a genuinely strong performance that makes the script's more outlandish elements work. 

"This jam won't wash off, no matter
how hard I scrub!"
But just when you think that the promising opening sequence was a false-alarm, and just when you think you know exactly where the film is going, it takes a sharp turn at the top of the second act, and turns into something else entirely. When this shift happened, I was genuinely surprised: I thought that I had Kolobos's number, and when it did something very unexpected and original, I was pleasantly stunned to say the least. From this point, the film enters a different category altogether, leaving behind its apparent Scream-cash-in nature and turning into a wild, unhinged, utterly batshit gorefest full of stylistic shout-outs to Argento and Fulci. Kolobos is a Greek word meaning maimed or mutilated, and the movie earns its title. This is clearly a film made by lovers of the horror genre – and the Italian horror genre in particular – and it really shows in the elaborately-crafted set-pieces. We get ominous dolly and steadicam shots, highly stylized colored lighting, a creepy Goblin-influenced score, and truly nasty and outlandish moments of gore far beyond what we usually got from American horror (let alone straight-to-video horror) around this time. Sure, one could reasonably accuse the film of being derivative, or flirting far too closely with the line between homage and rip-off (the score in particular is suspiciously close to Suspiria's), but it almost doesn't matter when it does what it does so effectively; derivative or no, this is a very fun example of a movie for cult horror geeks by cult horror geeks. Its style also has a tendency to shift in ways that feel unpredictable, and that keep the viewer somewhat off-balance: at times directors Daniel Liatowitsch and David Todd Ocvirk are channeling the giallo genre, and at other times they channel the surreal nightmare vibes of Suspiria, Inferno, or City of the Living Dead. The narrative makes room for these shifts with the plot device of Kyra's hallucinations, creating a slippery feeling where we often aren't quite sure what is real and what is imagined. Kolobos boasts some pretty creepy imagery in its more surreal moments, and telling the story mostly through the eyes of Kyra, a decidedly unreliable narrator, gives it an added layer of mystery. Like a lot of the films it pays homage to, it doesn't always make a lot of sense, but as with those films, that isn't really the point; the point is the bloody, bonkers, nightmarish thrill-ride of it all.

While Kolobos took me by surprise with how wild, unpredictable, and fun it is, there is no denying that it is a deeply uneven production with a lot of flaws. When it is good, it is quite good: the 35mm cinematography is very strong, the score (while derivative) is very effective, and the practical gore effects are outstanding. But in other ways it cannot escape the reality of being a straight-to-video film made for just half a million dollars, especially where its acting and characterization is concerned. The greatest love and care was without a doubt put into the atmosphere and the gore, and aside from the impressive Amy Weber, the real stars are the cinematographer and the effects artists. That approach works in the film's key moments, and allows it to rise above the average quality of its direct-to-video contemporaries on the strength of its set-pieces, but it also lets down other parts of the film. Its strong points are, however, worth the price of admission, and twenty years after its release its kitschy 90s qualities really just add to the fun. I'm not sure how much I can say that Kolobos is a genuinely good movie in total, but parts of it are very strong, and the whole is definitely a lot of fun. I can happily recommend it as a very enjoyable, well-crafted B-movie that, even when it's pretty cheesy, is always a really good time. If you're a fan of low-budget horror, and especially if you love the Italian masters of the 70s and 80s and have a taste for over-the-top gore effects, Kolobos is well worth seeking out. Arrow is right that it deserves some kind of cult-classic status, and I'm very glad that they've given the film some love, and convinced me to take a chance on it after years of writing it off.

"The horror! It's a pan-n-scan transfer!"
The Transfer:

Given the film's low-budget nature and level of obscurity, it's kind of amazing just how great Kolobos looks in its new 2k remaster; or rather, it's pretty amazing that a film like this got a 2k remaster at all. The mere fact that Arrow set out to give this movie such a level of love and care simply because they see it as an underrated gem and think that horror fans would agree goes a long way to show what genuine cinephiles and genre geeks they are. They really went the distance: Kolobos looks beautiful. In the film's extras, the co-directors talk about how, despite the low budget, they stretched to be able to shoot on 35mm, and were insistent that the film required a great cinematographer who understood the visual sensibility of Dario Argento's classics. As such, the film's visuals really benefit from this remaster; the pan-n-scan VHS and non-anamorphic letterboxed DVD (which were the only ways in which it had ever been seen in America) just don't do it justice. The stylized colors look vibrant, details are fine, and the print has a heavy presence of film grain that makes it feel very distinctly like 35mm. The sound mix is also strong, with the sound effects and score really shining. This film could not look or sound better than it does, and it's wonderful that Arrow gave such love and care to probably the most obscure title they've released in a while.

The Extras:

Arrow likewise went the distance to assemble a very thorough and extensive array of extras, once again inspiring disbelief that such a previously-forgotten film has somehow been given such a wonderful special edition. Leading the pack of extras is a very interesting and thorough 25-minute making-of doc featuring the filmmakers. There are also interviews with the composer and the actor who plays the film's villain, a featurette covering the theatrical premiere of Arrow's new transfer, and an early (very early – like when he was a teenager) short film by one of the directors. The film also features a commentary by the two co-directors. Both filmmakers look back on the production fondly, and have clear memories of the experience, and it is very entertaining and informative to hear from them both in the commentary and the doc. We get some great behind-the-scenes info – including an answer to just how they got away with packing so much intense gore into an R-rated film in 1999. The answer is, they didn't – the MPAA imposed cuts, which they made... but then they gave the distributor the uncut version anyway, and no one ever caught them. Well-played!

"It's Father's Day - where's my cake?"
While it is certainly a flawed low-budget film, Kolobos is a very entertaining one, and B-movie horror fans will find a lot to enjoy in its well-crafted visuals and effects, and its unashamedly insane plot. Arrow may be right when they argue that this overlooked little movie deserves cult classic status, and they make a strong case for it with their unexpectedly excellent and thorough special edition blu-ray. This has got to be one of the more obscure films to ever get the Arrow special edition treatment, but they certainly didn't skimp out; if anything, they really went the distance to show their love for it. This has got to be a personal favorite movie of someone high up at Arrow; the disc really feels like that kind of a horror-geek passion project. If you like your low-budget horror as gory as you do silly, and if you have a taste for a bit of 90s kitsch, check out Kolobos; you may wish you'd done it sooner.

Score for the film:

Score for the blu-ray:

- Christopher S. Jordan

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