02nd Jan2018

Phil’s Top 10 [DTV] Films of 2017

by Phil Wheat


2017 has been, at least for me, a fantastic year for movies. There has been some great films in the cinema, on DVD and VOD and the film festivals we’ve covered have been jam-packed with quality movies. Which makes it VERY hard to narrow down a list of the Top 10 of the year! Even moreso when it comes to DTV releases…

So, with that being said, I’ve decided that this year I’d split my picks into two distinct lists – the ten best films I saw in cinemas, be it at the local multiplex or at film festivals; and the ten best direct-to-market titles of the year, be they DVD or VOD.

This list takes in ALL the direct to DVD, VOD premieres, etc., that never made it to cinemas, so many in fact (32 in the shortlist!) that there’s enough honorable mentions to do multiple top tens and so many that this is easily the hardest year – in my ten years of reviewing – to pick just ten films! Anyway, on with the list which, like my cinematic Top 10, is in order of release…

Mondo Yakuza

A brand-new take on the Japanese Yakuza films of the 1960s, Mondo Yakuza is clearly inspired by the nihilistic work of Seijun Suzuki (Branded to Kill) in particular. The film tells the story of Ichiro Kataki (Shimada), a violent Yakuza gang member travels to Melbourne, Australia after his beloved sister Yuko is brutally murdered by a group of criminals. Hell bent on vengeance he teams up with Cassidy Arizona (Skye Medusa), a lady of the night with a vendetta of her own…

Mondo Yakuza sees actor Kenji Shimada at the top of his game, and the same can be said of writer/director Addison Heath, and in particular his scripting. Both his previous scripts, Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla and Under a Kaleidoscope, featured essentially one-character performances, focusing on the mindset of their leads. Here however the script, co-written with actors Glenn Maynard and Kenji Shimada, is much more of an ensemble piece; and as such all the characters have their own distinct voices and their own purpose – everyone drives the story forward to its ultimately satisfying conclusion, without a single wasted line of dialogue or, more importantly, screen time.

In the end, for all its Asian influences Mondo Yakuza is as Australian as it is Japanese. The blend between the two cultures – using the tropes of Japanese gangster movies, the furious action seen in Eastern cinema, and buckets of Aussie humour – is perfect; giving the audience a film that is both familiar yet fresh. The mixing of language, cultures and characters is a fantastic dichotomy and one that audiences will be pleasantly surprised by.

Ghosts of Darkness

Essentially a two-man production, for the majority Ghosts of Darkness‘ running time only leads Michael Koltes and Paul Flannery appear on screen – a situation which is  often dangerous for a low-budget production. Thankfully both are utterly compelling in their own individual ways. Flannery brings the humour, whilst Koltes is more your serious, everyman hero. Both work extremely well together, feeding off each others performances; and their on-screen chemistry is undeniable. A superb journey into the ghostly world of British horror, Ghosts of Darkness is a perfect storm of filmmaking: everyone and everything coming together to create something sensational.

There’s some incredibly funny gallows humour throughout Ghosts of Darkness, humour which offsets the more gruesome aspects of the film. Keith’s movie is also very self-aware, with jokes at its own expense, including a fantastic gag about how easy this films demons are to defeat: telegraphing the ridiculous, and predictable “twist”. That kind of humour – a knowing nod and wink to the audience – is what makes Ghosts of Darkness so enjoyable and so much fun. But it’s not all fun and laughs, Ghosts of Darkness does have some effective scary moments too, with some grotesque (and very bloody) imagery from the get-go. The opening salvo, THAT scene in the kitchen, sets the stage for what is to come and writer/director David Ryan Keith doesn’t shy away from giving the audience what they want: the titular ghosts – which range from the eerie to the outlandish.


Eliminators sees Adkins re-team with director James Nunn (the pair previously worked together on Green Street 3) for a film that tells the story of former US Federal Agent Martin Parker aka Thomas McKenzie (Adkins) is a single dad living a quiet life in London under the witness protection programme with his daughter Carly (Lily Ann Stubbs). However, his past catches up with him after his house is broken into in a high-profile robbery. Martin uses his expert fighting skills to dispatch the three intruders but his actions see his face plastered all over the news, leading his old enemies to come after him once again…

Eliminators is everything you’ve come to expect from a good “Scott Adkins” movie (yes, I’m calling that a genre from here on out), it’s packed with action, allowing Adkins to show off both his martial art and gunplay skills; the story, whilst simple, still has an emotional resonance – you REALLY want to see this father succeed in protecting his family. If there’s ever a phrase that will have me instantly reaching for my wallet it’s “a Scott Adkins film…” Honestly, nine times out of ten I will buy an Adkins film without so much as seeing a trailer. Why? Well because for me, Adkins is keeping the DTV dream alive, picking up the action hard-man mantle from 90s pioneers like Jeff Speakman, Olivier Gruner, Gary Daniels and in particular Jeff Wincott, one of the only other true action heroes to have the same perfect blend of fighting skills, charisma and acting chops as Adkins.


Opening with a quote taken from a thousand internet memes is an odd way to start a horror movie. But then Decay is odd all over – odd characters, odd situations and an oddly beautiful appearance. And oddly this film is bsaed on a true story… How loosely based we don’t know, but the fact this COULD be true makes this story all the more disturbing.

Like Hitchcock’s Psycho, Decay is essentially a character study of insanity; brought on in both cases by an overbearing, controlling, mother. But it is shot with a visual style that – despite the creepy subject matter – is some of the most beautiful and arresting in horror cinema, in total juxtaposition to the films core plot. And much like Richard Bates Jr. Excision, Decay tells its story much more visually rather than through tradtional exposition. Yes, there is a rather clunky intro/backstory early doors but once that’s out of the way, writer/director Joseph Wartnerchaney is left to use all the tools at his disposal tell what is, ultimately, a heartbreaking story of loneliness. All tied together by an eerie, yet empathic, central performance by Rob Zabrecky – who helps to make this a perfect example of how the horror genre can be powerful, terrifying and beautiful all at once,

Lady Bloodfight / Female Fight Squad

OK, OK… So I know I’m cheating a little by putting two films together in this Top 10 but hear me out. 2017 has been stunt woman turned actress Amy Johnston’s year, headlining two movies that, I posit, position her as the female equivalent of Jean-Claude Van Damme circa 1989/1990. Her first film, Lady Bloodfight, was a straight up action flick a la Kickboxer and/or Bloodsport; and her second, Female Fight Squad, actually had more of a story, yet still focuses heavily on the in-ring action – similar to the likes of Van Damme’s A.W.O.L. Now that may sound simplistic, but it’s also not a bad thing. After all, like Van Damme, Johnston is slowly but surely building a name for herself as a legitimate female fight-film talent. And one that, thanks to her vast experience in movies as a stunt woman, knows what it takes to make film fighting work beyond merely editing it together to look good.

As I said in my original reviews of both films, had either been released in the 90s, at the height of the VHS rental era, when the like of Martial Arts Illustrated and Impact Magazine had huge influence within the genre, there would have been page after page devoted to the movie in both magazines, analysing not only the film, but the talent behind it and _ I’d hazard to guess – hailing both as superb examples of the genre. Today however, we find both films released as a direct to market titles with little to no fanfare outside of a handful of reviews online…

With Lady Bloodfight and Female Fight Squad, Amy Johnston is two-for-two when it comes to her action “movie star” career. I do hope that mainstream audiences latch on to just how good a fighter and an actress she is, and she finally receives the kind of respect her pioneering peers garnered back in the VHS era.


Imagine if you will that Bates Motel wasn’t the ONLY place where a psychotic overbearing mother took control of her sons life. Then imagine if said mother was even more evil and twisted than Norman Bates ever was and not only took pleasure in torturing guests at her establishment but also her son – in ways more incestuous and insane than Hitchcock could have ever dreamed. Then have her played by an actress who not only, in the early parts of the film, is a sweet and kind natured as Mrs. Claus; but who can turn on a dime an reveal herself to be a complete psycho. That’s essentially the central conceit of Besetment.

Besetment stars Abby Wathen (The Bay) as Amanda Millard, a young woman who takes a hotel position in a small town – working for the deceptively sweet Mildred (Marlyn Mason) where she ends up fighting for her life…. Starting off slowly, Besetment actually lulls the audience into a false sense of security. Mildred and Abby really hit it off, having an almost mother-daughter relationship; Abby has a lot of freedom, coming and going as she pleases – in fact Abby builds something of a life for herself in the small town outside of her work/realtionship with Mildred and her son. Honestly, for the first half of Douglas’ film it’s almost like watching a life-affirming Hallmark channel movie, as we see Abby settle into her new life and become happier than she ever was with her mother. Then Abby gets sick. A sickness that turns out to be the result of Abby being pregnant… Then the proverbial s**t hits the fan!

Ultimately, Besetment is exactly is why I love covering direct to market releases – for the sheer surprise of discovering a film as GREAT as writer/director Brad Douglas’ debut feature. This is what you call a true undiscovered gem; a film that, honestly, is up there with the Psycho franchise and should be an essential addition to any horror fans collection.


The Die Hard template of movie-making (trapped in a locale as invaders take it over) is one that has been replicated over and over throughout the intervening years – of course Die Hard didn’t originate the concept, but it is the measuring stick by which all films since have been compared – setting a very high, and beloved, standard. So when the latest iteration of the format, the usually monikered “Die Hard in a…” hits stores it’s met with a mix of derision and intrigue. Derision because most (note I do say most, not all) Die Hard wannabes tend to fall short; and intrigue because audiences still want to see if, and how, said films actually measure up to the 80s classic. So how does Security, a film literally advertised as “Die Hard in a shopping mall”, shape up? In a word… amazingly.

Thankfully Security is propped up by a superb central performance by Antonio Banderas, in what is easily his most commanding role in years. Her he forgoes the over-the-top, sometimes flamboyant “hero” performance we’ve seen in the likes of Zorro, The Expendables and the Spy Kids movies; instead bringing a world-weariness to the role, giving such a great performance that he’s overcomes his own action-hero stereotype and truly makes the audience believe in his put-upon security guard, Eddie. But of course many will watch Security hoping it’s filled with action and gunplay; and, of course, it is. In fact the stunts in this film – in particular the scenes of Eddie riding round the mall on a quad bike like a madman – are some of the real highlights.

A fantastic take on a classic cinematic trope, Security is more akin to the serious Assault on Precinct 13 than the quip-filled Die Hard, and its just as good as both.

Darkness Wakes

It’s a classic horror trope. Someone is hired to do a job for a creepy person/couple and it turns out there’s something legitimately wrong about the creepy folk! From films like Babysitter Wanted to the more recent House of the Devil, it’s a horror cliche that never gets old. With stories like these it’s all about the execution. And Darkness Wakes executes things perfectly. One of my all-time favourite British horror films is Blood on Satan’s Claw, which mixed sex, sleaze and terror fantastically in it’s story of Satan at work in 18th-Century England and was marked by a stunning, uninhibited, performance by Linda Hayden. It’s a film that, for me has never been matched. Until now. Darkness Wakes takes everything that made Blood on Satan’s Claw so great – an uninhibited central performance from actress Aisling Knight, a mix of sex and horror and, of course, some creepy Satanic visuals – and applies it to a more modern setting; updating proceedings for today’s horror audience, complete with some truly nightmarish visuals and enough [jump] scares to even get hardened horror fans hearts pounding.

A film that mixes sex, violence and horror in ways that haven’t been seen since the likes of 1981′s exploitation fear flick Blood Shock (directed by Lindsay Honey, aka the infamous Ben Dover) and Norman J. Warren’s oeuvre – think Prey, Inseminoid and Satan’s SlaveDarkness Wakes is a superb slice of British terror that marks writer/director Simon Richardson and in particular his star Aisling Knight as talents to watch.

Death Fighter

The first thing you’ll be asking yourself a few minutes into Death Fighter is whether this is 2017 or the 90s? No. Seriously. Featuring not only Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock, two heavy-hitters of the DTV action era, in front of the camera; the film comes from director Toby Russell, he of Eastern Heroes fame and assistant director on the underrated Death Cage, aka Bloodfist 2 here in the UK. How best to describe Death Fighter? How about PM Entertainment meets Cannon Films? Because that’s certainly the feel here. You have the kinds of stars, fights and stuntwork seen in PM’s oeuvre and the gritty, sweaty, foreign-set locales that Cannon used to love slapping Chuck Norris in!

Honestly, you can’t help but love Death Fighter for at least one thing… Having a fight between Rothrock and Wilson. Yes, you read that right, two of the genres most beloved stars get to go head-to-head in on screen scrap in Russell’s film! It’s like a genre fans dream come true – I’ve seen Rothrock and Wilson act together before in the likes of Sci-Fighters, but never go head-to-head. Good on Rothrock for playing against type and kudos to Russell for letting the pair have a decent amount of screen time, and being given visual freedom (sans too many cutaways, edits etc), for their final showdown.

Trust me, if you’re a fan of Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson and/or Cynthia Rothrock’s work then you’re guaranteed to love Death Fighter.

Cabin 28

Based on a true story, Cabin 28 is a collaboration between writer John Klyza – a man whose work in the Sleepaway Camp fan community is legendary (Klyza ran THE definite SC website, one of my earliest go-to’s back in the day, eventually parlaying that into helping to find and reconstruct the long-lost Sleepaway Camp 4), and Welsh filmmaker Andrew Jones, more commonly known as the auteur behind the Robert franchise and the founder of British production company North Bank Entertainment, which has been pumping out genre product on a regular basis for most of this decade.

Led by an almost unrecognisable Terri Dwyer (Hollyoaks), complete with faux-American accent, as the mother of the family under siege in this home invasion meets slasher movie, Cabin 28 is easily the most accomplished of Jones’ films. It’s also the most “American” of Jones’ films too, with a mostly British cast all putting on American accents and a cabin-in-the-woods locale that looks oh-so American but was actually filmed in Wales. Based on the “Keddie Murders,” the same story that inspired the bigger-budgeted horror The Strangers, Cabin 28 is easily my favourite of all Andrew Jones’ output so far. The film belies it’s low-budget and it’s UK origins to create a visceral experience that I surprisingly actually enjoyed much more than it’s aformentioned true-story brethren.

Honorable Mentions: Call of Heroes, Hunting Grounds (aka Valley of the Sasquatch), Mr. Right, Havenhurst, Little Dead Rotting Hood, Black Rose, The Dark Below, Star Raiders: The Adventures of Saber Raine, Sinbad & the Clash of the Furies, The Rift, Tomboy, Day of Reckoning, XX, Demon Hunter, 13 Demons, Ultimate Justice, Chokeslam, The Outcasts, The Viper’s Hex, Vampariah, Overdrive.


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