The “Captivity” genre of horror films (in which victims are not quickly killed but instead are kept alive to endure lengthy torment) is wearing out its welcome (at least judging by the box office returns of CAPTIVITY and HOSTEL 2), yet it does yield the occasional welcome surprise. For example, the low-budget TIMBER FALLS is an effectively horrifying opus about about religious loonies who kidnap a couple in order to force them to conceive a surrogate child. The premise may not sound sound particularly auspicious, but instead of just another “Torture Porn” flick, we get a black-comedy satire that combines elements of MISERY, DELIVERANCE, and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Although clearly derivative, the film works hard to assemble its familiar pieces into something that works in its own right, and largely succeeds. The characters and suspense are handled well, and the horror hit most of the right notes – grim enough to to yield some grueling fright without drowning lost in a welter of blood. Read More
This is an unnecessary and ultimately pointless remake of a cult film that never fully deserved its reputation. The new version is an adequate technical exercise, with some nice desert photography and a strong performance by Sean Bean (replacing Rutger Hauer in the title role), but the attempts at “originality” undermine whatever meager integrity the original possessed.
The new version kicks off with a bunny crossing the road. The texture of the fur looks realistic enough, but the too carefully choreographed movements betray its computer-generated origins, triggering mental questions (“Why not use a real rabbit?”) that telegraph the animal’s bloody demise beneath the wheels of a speeding car. The shot has the benefit of acting as a sort of overture for what will follow: a carefully choreographed dance in which in which phony characters will always foolishly walk in harm’s way, with gore-splattered results. Read More
The Sci-Fi Channel’s three-part “re-imagining” of L. Frank Baum’s THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ gets off to a sleepy, tedious start as we meet DG (Zooey Deschanel), a troubled youth stuck in a dead-end waitress job while living on her parents’ farm in rural Kansas. She keeps having dreams of a faraway land, and of a woman with lavender eyes (Anna Galvin). Meanwhile, in a realm known as The Outer Zone, or O.Z., the sorceress Azkadellia (Kathleen Robertson) rules with an iron fist, using both magic and plain old military might. However, she learns of a girl from outside the O.Z. that might be a threat to her rule, and sends her Longcoats to eliminate her. Using a magical “travel storm” that generates a tornado, the Longcoats, led by the ruthless and cruel Zero (Callum Keith Rennie), attack DG and her parents. They escape by jumping into the tornado, which deposits DG in the O.Z. Read More
By Steve Biodrowski
Disney’s self-mocking combination of animation and live-action is not without its charm, but so slim is the satire that the result comes dangerously close to resembling a cheap imitation by a moderately talented wannabe – instead of the self-reflexive piece of sophistication that was obviously intended. The premise has Giselle (Amy Adams) expelled from the animated wonder land of Andalasia and winding up in live-action modern day New York, where her quaint ideas about True Love make her seem like a delightful if addle-headed kook. She hooks up with a divorce lawyer (Patrick Dempsey), who has plenty of reason not to believe in story-book romances. Giselle is followed to New York by Prince Edward (James Marsden), who wants to rescue her. Nathaniel (Timothy Spall) pretends to help Edward while actually serving as a secret agent of the evil Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon), who shows up for a climactic confrontation at the end.
This is a potentially fun but ultimately frustrating attempt to craft a low-budget monster movie. Things get off to a good start with a moody credits sequence set in a cave, with some kind of electronic sensor displaying the outline of a long-dormant creature re-awakening. Out on a lonely highway, a trucker is startled by the appearance of the beast, and his eighteen wheeler ends up splashed across the asphalt, blocking the only major road in or out of an isolated Indian reservation; not only that, the truck was on its way to deliver gasoline to the local station, which runs dry without the new supply. It’s a perfect “fish-in-a-barrel” set up: with no gas and no road out of town, a handful of characters – some locals, some just passing through – are forced to stand and face off with the monster.
Unfortunately, it is all downhill from there. Once it has the characters in the situation, the muddled script barely knows what to do with them (except kill them off one by one). After the monster attacks start, the action consists mostly of panicked running around, with little or no strategy, and the film barely bothers to keep track of who is where or what has happened to them. Cars fail, forcing potential victims to get out and walk in the dark – a tired cliche used at least twice here.
Eventually, a gang of survivors seeks help from Kale (Luke Goss), one of those convenient movie characters who knows all about the monster and what needs to be done. For reasons never made clear, Kale is a nut-job who seems more likely to kill his fellow humans, even though he claims to be dedicated to eradicating the monster (which he blames for the extinction of his Anasazi ancestors). This pointless sub-conflict drags the storyline off on a tangent when it should be rushing straight ahead to the climax.
The exposition during these scenes is laughable. Using nothing but a microscope and some cave paintings, a young Indian botanist (Tonantzin Carmelo) figures out that the monster is an alien sent to Earth to retrieve DNA samples – and she whips up a poison that will kill it (it goes without saying that bullets are useless).
The cast is not bad, but they are given little to work with. The film avoids many of the tired cliches: the women aren’t sluts, and the characters usually do not act like idiots who deserve to die. Unfortunately, there is little to fill the void, so we barely get to know who any of these people are. We are told that Sheriff Annie (Emmanuelle Vaugier) is a guilt-ridden alcoholic since she was responsible for the death of a child, but the details of what happened are hopelessly vague, and they barely intersect with the actual plot. In any case, Vaugier looks to young to have been entrusted with the position of sheriff, and she looks too beautiful and healthy to be suffering from the effects of alcoholism. (One characters says he has seen tell-tale tremors in her hands, but the camera never shows them to the audience.
The few times the script seems to be making a point, the ideas are promptly forgotten (perhaps left on the editing room floor). Hank (Charles Murphy, Eddie’s brother) makes a big deal of the important cargo he is transporting in his Corvette; he even goes to the trouble of finding a safe place to store it when he learns he will be stuck for the night. Like the proverbial gun loaded in the first act, you expect something payoff, but it never comes; the object and its purpose remains a total mystery.
The same might be said for the alien itself. We see that it implants tiny organisms into the bodies of its victims, but their purpose is never explained. Presumably, they are extracting human DNA, but why would more than one sample be needed, and why does the extraction process have to be fatal? For that matter, the script never gets around to explaining why the alien lived in peace, worshipped as a god, for many years with the Anasazi, before turning lethal. To top it all off, in the final reel, the upright creature (which bears a passing resemblance to the titular star of ALIEN), is shown to have a small crab-like cohort. Parasite? Sibling? Off-spring? take your pick; the film does not bother to tell.
The monster itself is rendered with some unconvincing computer-generated imagery, which often looks like rough test footage; the stroboscopic motion at times even suggests badly done stop-motion. To its credit, the effects shots are brief, using darkness and shadows to hide the shortcomings, but the effects is more frustrating than frightening. Although the design seems derivative of H. R. Giger, the glimpses we see do look interesting, and it would be nice to get a better look at the monster.
The best thing about UNEARTHED is its use of desert locations. There are some nice atmospheric shots of the desert at night – black hills silhouetted against dimming traces of light in the sky – that perfectly set the scene for a simple, enjoyable monster movie. Sadly, the cinematography takes the use of darkness too far, and we end up seeing little if any of the horror.
The director compliments the muddled lighting with shaky camera work and rapid-fire editing that make most of the action scenes completely incomprehensible. You almost wind up feeling that there might be a watchable monster movie taking place, if the camera would just settle down long enough to let you watch it.
Steve Johnson’s Edge FX, Inc. is credited with creature effects fabrication and animatronics, but most of the monster scenes seem to have been created with CGI. Considering that UNEARTHED aims to be an old-fashioned monster movie, it is curious that the film does not emphazie the old-fashioned on-set effects.
UNEARTHED is one of the so-called “8 Films to Die For” that screened as part of the 2007 After Dark Horrorfest. Other films included BORDERLAND, CRAZY EIGHTS, THE DEATHS OF IAN STONE, LAKE DEAD, MULBERRY STREET, NIGHTMARE MAN, and TOOTH AND NAIL.
UNEARTHED (2007). Written and directed by Matthew Leutwyler. Cast: Emmanuelle Vaugier, Luke Goss, Beau Garrett, Charles Q. Murphy, Tonantzin Carmelo, Whitney Able, Tommy Dewey, M. C. Gainey, Russell Means, Miranda Baily.
This is another disappointing entry in the 2007 After Dark Horrorfest. Like TOOTH AND NAIL, it feels like a throwback to an earlier era of low-budget exploitation film-making. In this case, we get a group of young people heading to an isolated area for the weekend, but instead of a single silent killer lurking in the woods (a la FRIDAY THE 13TH), we get a pair of them, plus a few other nasty surprises. The plot kicks off with Grandpa (Edwin Craig) being gunned down after bailing out on the family “Tradition” (apparently something rather unsavory). His granddaughter Brielle (Kelsey Crane) receives a letter notifying her that she and her sisters have inherited Grandpa’s motel in the woods. Brielle’s estranged father warns her not to go, but she ignores the advice. Out in the woods, Brielle’s step-sister and friends are killed and/or raped one by one, but Brielle and her real sister get the hands-off treatment. It turns out that the hulking killers are in cahoots with some more presentable folk, who have other plans for the two sisters…
It does not take high-wattage brain power to deduce why Brielle and her sister are receiving exceptional treatment. The talk of family “purity” clues us in to the motivations of the villains, who want their estranged relatives for incestuous breeding purposes. By the time the wacko mother-and-son duo celebrate their plan with a deep romantic kiss, any potential shock has worn off; viewers are more likely to giggle at having their suspicions confirmed.
Most of the other “surprises” are also telegraphed. As in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, the characters escape from danger only to run into an allegedly friendly face, a sheriff who turns out to be part of the horror – but the movie has already revealed the sheriff’s involvement in the opening scene. Even without this give-away, his behavior is too obviously suspicious, yet Brielle and company are too stupid to see that they have walked out of the frying pan into the proverbial fire.
That’s pretty much par for the course. Although the characters in LAKE DEAD are supposed to be adults, they act little differently from the stupid horny teenagers who inhabited bad slasher movies back in the 1980s. The introductory scenes, including the weekend road trip, even echoes FRIDAY THE 13TH 3D. The camaraderie, beer-drinking, and bitching along the way are all pretty juvenile, serving little purpose except to bore us with the “character” moments that are supposed to make us like the victims before they are slaughtered. Eventually, one couple even wanders off alone in the woods to have sex and – in the time-honored tradition -get killed immediately afterwards. There is little the cast can do except embody these walking cliches from another era; sadly, the passage of time has made their behavior seem even more incredible.
The director opts for crude brutality, but he evokes more revulsion than actual terror. Working on the theory that THE HILLS HAVE EYES and THE HILLS HAVE EYES 2 were too restrained in their attacks on women, we get not one but two rape scenes for our alleged viewing pleasure. In the first, the victim is pinned to a tree with a pickax through the face. For some reason, we’re expected to believe her wound leaves her alive long enough to experience the sexual assault, but the intended effect backfires, producing laughs of ridicule.
After watching these vile backwoods loonies perpetrating more than their fair share of on-screen atrocities, there is a certain satisfaction in seeing the tables turned for some well-deserved payback near the end. There’s even a clever moment when Brielle’s fiance manages to defeat an opponent while tied to a chair; it’s a scene we’ve watched a million times before, and it’s nice that we see something besides the usual wriggling-the-hands-free routine.
Unfortunately, this heroic action on the part of the male lead seems part and parcel of some rather retro sexual politics. Brielle gets herself and her friends into danger because she refuses to take paternal advice (this is what happens when women think for themselves, apparently). The real mastermind of the backwoods horror is the old family matriarch, who stood fast by the vile family tradition even when Grandpa had second thoughts. (Leaving aside Grandpa’s unexplained change-of-heart, the implication is that no good comes from having a woman running the family.) Not only does LAKE DEAD offer up the old “sex equals death” formula (while deliberately characterizing the first two female victims as sluts or whores); the film also insists on portraying Brielle and her sister as screaming victims from beginning to end. There is not even the climactic “Final Girl” moment when the last intended victim faces off alone against the killer; instead, the male charactes (first the fiance, then – at the very end – the estranged father) have to save the helpless women. Man-power, baby – that’s what it takes!
In a final nod toward outdated movie cliches, LAKE DEAD ends with an epilogue that tells us the horror is not over. Perhaps a sequel is intended, but it is hard to imagine anyone wanting to take a second plunge after wading once through this muddy, murky lake.
LAKE DEAD (2007). Directed by George Bessudo. Written by Daniel P. Coughlin. Cast: James C. Burns, Kelsey Crane, jim Devoti, Tara Gerard, Pat McNeely, Alex A. Quinn, Malea Richardson, Kelsey Wedeen. Christian Stokes, Trevor Torseth.
A laudable attempt at atmosphere and a handful of creepy moments are not enough to redeem this muddled mess, one of the “8 Films to Die For” in the 2007 After Dark Horrorfest. Unlike most of its brethren in the fest, CRAZY EIGHTS has a few familiar names and faces in the cast: Dina Meyer, Frank Whaley, Gabrielle Anwar, and Traci Lords. Any hope that this will increase the dramatic intensity is dashed by a screenplay that barely manages to tell a story. The fragmented opening is supposed to be intriguing, but instead is frustrating: we get a flashback about a mental hospital where some questionable experiments on children took place decades ago, followed by introductions to two of the main characters, but how these scenes relate to each other is left wide open; we hope for the pieces to come together eventually, but the hope is mostly in vain. A handful of characters wind up together at a funeral for one of their comrades, whose last wish was that they recover a “time capsule” they buried years before as children. This leads to an old chest that contains not only mementos of the past but also the body of a long-dead child. Unable to find their way back from the deserted area, the group ends up in an abandoned facility, which turns turns out to be haunted.
The question is what does any of this have to do with the prologue, and why are these characters involved? You won’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to see the revelations coming long before the characters figure them out, but you will need to be Kreskin to understand how any of it makes sense. The revelations raise more questions than they answer; script drops hints left and right, but none of them add up to a satisfying explanation. It becomes obvious rather early on that all the characters are former inmates of the asylum, and that a guilty secret from their past has caught up with them decades later. The problem is: we figure this out long before the characters, and when the film gets around to explaining how they could have forgotten all this, the script can barely be bothered to offer up any details that might be convincing. The aura of contrivance lays so heavily over the proceedings that it blankets them in incredulity, muffling the attempt to generate any real thrills.
The cast struggle to make something out of it all, but they are thwarted by a story that never establishes a solid foundation that will ground the horror in a believable sense of reality. Lords is okay as long as she doesn’t have to emote too much. Anwar does a nice turn as the fragile woman who seems doomed from the outset, but there’s no where to go with the one-note character. Meyer starts out strong, until the script calls for her to lapse into melodramatic hysterics; with the emotions never having been earned, her reactions seem overwrought. Whaley comes off best as the arrogant self-centered jerk of the group. His final moments, aided by some nifty fragmented editing (cutting back and forth between different bits of action as he carries on a lonely conversation with himself) seem dropped in from another, better movie.
By the time it all winds down, the audience no longer cares; the result seems too inevitable, and the film has given us no reason to care: it is not as if we are watching some dramatic tragedy with a sympathetic character felled by fate; it’s just one more victim for the pile. The film then has the nerve to stick one more flashback on the end, as if this will somehow be the final piece that completes the puzzle and makes sense of it all. Or maybe not.
It is nice to see at least one ghost story included in this year’s After Dark Horrorfest, but there are certainly better ones than this available. One should also note that, despite the R-rating, this is a rather tepid stew: there is no nudity, little gore, and the violence all takes place off-screen. One would like to applaud the filmmakers for eschewing the explicit approach, but cutting away from the carnage is not enough to make a great horror film. Even if it is just a shadow on the wall, you still have to show something that inspires terror – something that creates the image in our brain of what we are not seeing on screen. In CRAZY EIGHTS, what we do see is not enough to make us fear what we don’t.
In the film, the term “Crazy Eights” has nothing to do with the well-known card game. Instead, it refers to the name of a baseball team in which the characters played as children. Of course, eight is one shy of the number necessary for a ball team; presumably the missing ninth member is the corpse found in the trunk.
CRAZY EIGHTS (2007). Directed by James Koya Jones. Written by Dan DeLuca, James Koya Jones, Ji-un Kwon. Cast: Dina Meyer, Frank Whaley, Traci Lords, Gabrielle Anwar, George Newbern, Dan DeLuca.
This is a laughably bad post-apocalyptic thriller that was inexplicably included as one of the “8 Films to Die For” in the 2007 edition of the After Dark Horrorfest. Apart from the overall low-quality of the threadbare production, one has to wonder why After Dark Films would stretch the definition of “horror” to include a second-rate entry like this (presumably because of the gory violence?)
To be fair, TOOTH AND NAIL quite honestly announces its awfulness in the opening narration, which rather absurdly tries to blame the complete collapse of civilization on running out of gasoline! It is easy enough to believe that such an event would radically alter society, but here we are supposed to believe that it led to a total collapse, followed by anarchy and savagery. Guess all those wind-powered generators, electrical dams, and nuclear reactors were good for nothing! And nobody thought to press bicycles, sailing yachts, and horses into transportation service. And all those historical societies and naturalists and campers and boy scouts who learned how to rub two sticks together – they didn’t help out much either! The absurdity of the whole notion is underlined by the intonations of Robert Carradine, who delivers the lines as if telling a bad joke – which indeed it is.
Once the story begins, we soon see that we are in a throwback to bad drive-in filming from the ’70s and ’80s, which often consisted of finding a large, abandoned building (in this case, a hospital) and setting a whole movie inside it. Our cast of characters are trying to build a new life, but after they rescue a stranger (Rachel Miner) they find themselves menaced by “Rovers,” a band of cannibals who pick off their victims by night, one at a time.
The lip-service explanation for this modus operandi is that Rovers like fresh meat, so they do not kill all their victims at once and let them rot. Of course, it would be just as easy to capture everyone and hold them prisoner until dinner time, but then there would be no excuse to drag the film out with scene after scene of characters being killed off one by one.
But plot is only one of the problems here. The real laugh riot is the dialogue and performances, which plumb the giddy depths of silliness as our hapless, helpless band of misfits stand around wondering what to do and asking each other if it will be all right and worrying about their inability to handle the situation. When voting for a new leader (after the death of the previous one), the pettiness and bickering has all the dramatic impact of high school kids picking the president of the prom committee.
Later, lest we forget that this is just a schlock exploitation film, there are a couple of gratuitous sex scenes, one of which is outright goofy (with night falling and the Rovers on their way, the guy promises the girl that he will protect her – oh, that survival talk is so sexy!) Otherwise, the subject of sex never comes up. The Rovers seem to enjoy eating men and women equally; although their leader talks about survival of the fittest, the fact that their tribe will not survive without women to bear children never comes up.
By the time our heroine decides to put the hammer down on these cannibalistic cretins and dons her warpaint, the film comes close to achieving camp classic status; sadly, the lethargic pace prevents TOOTH AND NAIL from being truly enjoyable bad, so the film will have to settle for the distinction of being the best reason in recent memory for the return of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 (it would make a good companion piece for ROBOT HOLOCAUST).
It is a shock to see Carradine in middle age (where has he been since REVENGE OF THE NERDS?), but he gives a respectable performance, lending the film a little class for a short time. Michael Madsen shows up in two brief scenes as one of the Rovers, but he never interacts with the rest of the cannibals and none of them seem to notice when he’s gone, leading one to suspect that his footage was shot and added seperately, to provide a little name value. Rachel Miner (who was so good in PENNY DREADFUL, one of After Dark’s offerings last year) is ultimately defeated by the script, which turns her character into a melodramatic cliche.
There is one good idea in the movie: for the final confrontation, the odds for our outnumbered heroine are evened because the cannibals are doped up – the bodies of their latest victims having been injected with drugs. It’s the one moment when you actually think, “That’s clever,” and it thankfully spares us from an extended knock-down, drag-out, tooth-and-nail fight scene. It ain’t much, but when sitting through something this bad, you grow grateful for the few meagre crumbs of quality.
TOOTH AND NAIL (2007). Written and directed by Mark Young. Cast: Rachel Miner, Robert Carradine, Michael Madsen, Vinnie Jones, Rider Strong, Michael Kelly, Nicol DuPort, Alexandra Barreto, Emily Catherine Young. Beverly Hynds, Patrick Durham, Jonathan Sachar.
This horror film set in Manhattan, told from the point of view of a bunch of working class stiffs, is half-brilliant and half-okay. The dingy lighting and shaky camera work, combined with a solid script and convincing performances, create an almost documentary feel that lures the audience into the dark situation and sets them up to take the fall when the horror strikes from the shadows like a sap to the back of the neck. The premise is that a new development in a rundown neighborhood has stirred up some particularly nasty, infectious rats, who start nipping the human characters. Although the story is told mostly from the point of few of the characters in one particular building, a series of newscasts shows that the phenomenon is spread throughout the city. Just as viewers are beginning to imagine swarms of homicidal rodents engulfing the building a la THE BIRDS, the story reveals its true direction: those bitten by the rats become infected – and start to mutate into rat-like humans who kill and devour their former friends.
MULBERRY STREET never quite comfortably makes the transition from a more realistic, believable form of horror (the rat attacks seem exaggerated in detail but not really impossible) into George Romero territory (with the obvious exception that the neighbors are turning into rats rather than zombies). As if sensing this, the director keeps the camera shaking and the cinematographer keeps the images dark, so that you cannot clearly see the “f-cking rat people” (as one character calls them). The technique ultimately grows irritating because it becomes almost impossible to follow most of the action.
Story-wise, things get a little shaky around the halfway point, when the city goes into full meltdown mode and the characters either batten down the hatches or rush out into the pandemonium to save someone. In an effort to rip apart audience expectations, major characters are killed off – which is fine – but the characters who have tried to save them are too-matter-of-fact about the loss, undercutting the drama and moving the film more in the direction of a formulaic genre piece.
Thankfully, the film delivers a reasonably moving, if slightly muddled, ending, which (like the rest of the film) bears more than a passing resemblance to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. (The impact is muted because the fate of one character is unclear: Is she dead or tranquilized? And if she is supposed to be dead, why not just shoot her with a bullet instead of a dart?)
Co-writer Nick Damici gives a strong performance in the lead role of Clutch, a former boxer battling the infestation. The rest of the cast is convincing as well, in a down-to-earth, everyday sort of way that avoids the melodramatic stereotypes of the genre. (The exception is the WWII vet – a demolition expert – who shouts, “Anzio” before immolating himself and the rat-people swarming into his apartment – a cornball moment that does work.)
In the great tradition of horror films in which ordinary people rise to the occasion in the face of attack by horrible monsters, MULBERRY STREETS suggests that New Yorkers will fight like hell to the finish even when little if any hope remains. It sounds cornball, but the movie tries – mostly successfully – to make you believe it.
HOLLYWOOD CLOSET? (SPOILERS)
MULBERRY STREET seems to make a deliberate effort to join the ranks of Hollywood Closet movies filled with homosexual innuendo. Clutch is a single father whose wife is long gone, but he is initially slow to respond to obvious overtures from his pretty downstairs neighbor Kay (Bo Corre). The film has a fairly typical gay supporting character (who, being also black, is twice doomed not to live till the closing credits); what is a little less typical is that the character is Clutch’s roommate, and he evinces some rather obvious jealousy when Kay pumps him for personal information about Clutch. Both of the romantic rivals for Clutch’s affection become infected, but when Kay re-appears in rat-form, Clutch immediately exterminates her like vermin. His response to the reappearance of his roommate is completely different, with a soulful exchange of glances. Realizing that he is not being attacked because he, too, is infected (crossing the line that separates “us” from “them”), Clutch grabs his roommate and dives off the roof of the building, plunging them to their death. In effect, the two infected men die in each other’s arms, their bodily fluids intermingling on the bloody pavement.
Is the rat-virus a metaphor for AIDS? Possibly, but the film offers other interpretations, tapping into other current cultural concerns, such as September 11, 2001, and the Iraq conflict. One character blames the viral outbreak on Osama Bin Laden (“That rat bastard!”), and Clutch’s daughter is an Iraq veteran, returning home after plastic surgery to repair a wound on her face. If anything, the horrifying outbreak in MULBERRY STREET seems to be a repository for all the free-floating anxieties plaguing New Yorker at the moment.
MULBERRY STREET(2006). Directed by Jim Mickle. Written by Nick Damici, Jim Mickle (co-writer). Cast: Nick Damici, Kim Blair, Ron Brice, Bo Corre, Tim House, Larry Fleischman, Larry Medich. Javier Picayo, Antone Pagan, Lou Torres, Larry Fessenden.
One of the “8 Films to Die For” in the 2007 edition of the After Dark Horrorfest, BORDERLAND is a tense, bloody thriller that raises questions about how we define the horror genre. In essence, this is a story about three gringos who go south of the border for a weekend in Mexico, only to run afoul of a local drug lord named Santillan; it is more a crime melodrama than a horror film, except that the film likes to dwell on the bloody methods employed by Santillan and his minions. These are rendered in graphic, horrifying detail, but they are not much more violent than what you would see in SCARFACE (both films feature severed limbs, although here the weapon of choice is a machete rather than a chainsaw). What really kicks the film into the borderland of the horror genre is the aura of superstitious dread surrounding Santillan, a cult leader who uses Santeria rituals and human sacrifices to render his runners “invisible” to the police (or so they believe). The unnerving confidence of his minions, who brag that their souls are dead and claim “jails cannot hold us; bullets cannot harm us” does send an uncanny chill down the spine – enough to qualify this as a borderline horror effort.
Genre labels aside, BORDERLAND is thoroughly engrossing, building effectively toward a grueling climax. The sense of growing dread is almost palpable. Although punctuated with visceral thrills, the real engine driving the film is fear of what will happen next, coupled with a sense of being helpless in the face of a seemingly all-powerful enemy.
The screenplay creates a completely believable situation, populated with believable people – not the moronic victims typical for this kind of thing. The writing evinces an easy knack for throwing in surprising little details that humanize the situations, which are expertly executed by the cast and the director. When Phil (Rider Strong), the virgin of the American trio on vacation, realizes that the prostitute his friend has set him up with has a baby, instead of being turned off, he finds himself endeared; what started as a quick sexual tryst turns into a potential relationship, and the actor totally sells the transition, elevating the scene from a cliched sexual fantasy to a moment of real drama.
The script also walks the tightrope of creating characters who try to do the right thing under difficult circumstances – without turning them into heroes who will obviously win. This is most obviously the case with Valeria (the appealing Martha Higareda): although introduced as a bartender who can take care of herself in a rough crowd, she never morphs into an invincible superwoman.
Likewise with the rest of the cast: Damian Alcazar provides a vivid portrait of Ulisis, a former cop, haunted by the death of his partner, to hunt for the truth, but he’s no LETHAL WEAPON-clone. In the role of Ed, the thoughtful member of the group, Brian Presley (who suggests a young Tom Cruise – if he weren’t a movie star but just a good actor) may be sincere when he says he would shoot a man “if I had to,” but that hardly inspires much confidence heading into the climax. On the far end of the scale, Jake Muxworthy deserves special note for playing the obnoxious jerk of the group and managing to make him sympathetic; after the character has a near-fatal encounter with Santillan’s strongman, it really hurts to see the once cocky and confident character reduced to shattered cowardice.
This approach is the fim’s masterstroke, keeping the story convincing throughout, never sliding into comfortable Hollywood territory. When Henry nearly gets killed, instead of being inspired to seek payback (like so many movie characters), the terrifying incident far more believably breaks his spirit. Even later, when Ed, Valeria, and Ulises arm themselves and rescue Phil, there is no thrill of anticipatory excitement (“Oh boy, now they’re gonna kick ass!”); you just fear that they are walking into the lion’s den, probably to their doom.
Director Zev Berman plays his hand deftly, throwing down winning trump cards at big moments. For example, the script tells us about Santillan long before revealing him, lending an almost mythical aura to the character. When he finally appears (masterfully embodied by Beto Cuevas), Berman somehow – incredibly – manages to make the man live up to the myth, giving us a Santillan who is both sinister and charismatic, who could both instill fear and hold his followers in a thrall. What could have been a terrible disappointment becomes instead a step deeper into the Heart of Darkness.
The reference to Joseph Conrad is no accident. Although allegedly based on true events, the structure of the story clearly owes a debt to Heart of Darkness(or perhaps more directly to its cinematic heir, APOCALYPSE NOW). Certainly, the overall narrative thread is of “civilized” white people moving through a primative terrain toward an eventual confrontation with Kurtz-like figure who has thrown off all the shackles of society and set himself up as a local god. There is even an American acolyte (obviously modeled after the Dennis Hopper character in Coppola’s movie) who visits the kidnapped American in his cell and mouths some semi-coherent ramblings about the supposedly great man he serves.
The portrait of a seedy border town where anything can happen is painted in fine detail, especially, the bordello. The dinginess of the setting is far removed from the idyllic fantasy of sexual freedom that one might see in a teen-comedy, but it stops short of going so far that you never believe the characters would set foot in it.
With this portrait of the land South of the Border infested with superstitious customs and primitive evil ready to destroy the unwary white man who naively ventures into it, BORDERLAND certainly plays on the stranger-in-a-strange land fears. Fortunately, the handling of the material is too sophisticated to be overtly racist, being nicely balanced with sympathetic local characters. There is also some dialogue indicating that the danger resides not so much in Mexico as in the Borderland of the title – a scary sort of neutral zone where the usual rules of society do not apply and where the law barely exists.
This suggests a deliberate attempt to satirize the simple-minded Republican philosophy voiced by Henry early in the film (who derides the poor for being lazy and evokes Mexico as a place where a man can truly be free instead of living in the over-regulated United States). BORDERLAND takes this libertarian view of paradise (no law, no government, just rich people doing what they want) and turns it on its head in a particularly brutal and ugly way, without expressing a political point of view in a heavy-handed way.
Unfortunately, after the suspense is played out and you look back on the result, you realize that it is a missed opportunity. BORDERLAND fails in never fully realizing its thematic undercurrents regarding superstition. Santillan is presented as someone who may have supernatural powers – at least he is believed to have them, by both his followers and those who fear him. The film seems briefly to be wrestling with this issue near the climax, when Santillan’s intended victim quotes the famous Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my Shepherd…”) during the ritual.
For a brief moment, two alternate belief systems come into direct conflict (a familiar theme in the horror genre). Rather like THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY, the old Hammer Horror film about the Thugee cult in India (in which a battle between a snake and a mongoose is elevated to a symbolic stand-off between good and evil), it seems as if BORDERLAND is catapulting onto an entirely different level, in which the action is no longer merely about life and death but truly about Good and Evil in a metaphysical sense. Alas, it comes to nothing. The supernatural suggestions are simply window dressing, and the script has nothing to say about the religious undertones, opting instead for the easier, obvious, and fairly familiar message that ordinary people can and will turn violent and savage if pressed hard enough to defend themselves and/or avenge their friends.
This is not far from standard exploitation territory, sadly, and using the old “based on a true story” gambit as a justification only further degrades the film. BORDERLAND really is not interested in exploring a real-life scenario in all its complexity. You will not learn any insightful lessons about how a cult can grow, thrive, and survive in the modern world; or about why local institutions like law enforcement were unwilling or unable to combat it; or about what finally brought an end to the cult after years of apparent invulnerability. All that takes a back-seat to the bloodshed, which is the film’s true raison de’tre.
Luckily, fumbling the interesting ideas in favor of opting for the lowest-common-denominator appeal does not undermine the effectiveness of the storytelling. As unsavory as the approach can be, it remains griping to the end, even when you wish the ambition had been aimed a little higher. The closest relative may be WOLF CREEK (which also claimed to be based on a true story), but in many ways BORDERLAND is the better film, unburdened with a bad ending. It may be flawed, but BORDERLAND remains a darkly disturbing – probably the most genuinely frightening of the 2007 After Dark horror films.