Monday, June 22, 2009

Little Films With Wicked Hearts

When I watched Dead Snow a little while ago, it occured to me that I had seen that story somewhere before. And I don't mean in a 'this is a ripoff of every other horror movie ever made' kinda way, I mean I had literally seen a Nazi gold zombie film before. The reason I didn't remember it right away was because that film, Steve Barker's Outpost was so forgettable that it had just vanished from my recollection. As its ostensibly a Day of the Dead ripoff but with Nazis, I thought I might as well get it over with and then move on to a much better zombie-type film that is half The Thing tribute and half zombie movie.

by Steve Barker
Some guy hires a bunch of 'mercenaries' who can't seem to figure out how and why they started working together or whether they're cowboys or UN peacekeepers to help him find something in a bunker in the middle of a war ravaged country. I forget which and I just rewatched this last night. Then they get there and something shoots at them from the tree line and gets them all riled up. Then they find a bunch of naked bodies in the bunker, one of which is still alive even if it looks like someone stole his brain. The soldiers all think they're there to steal Nazi gold, but its apparently more sinister. The bankroller guy seems to know that something's up, but doesn't know anything worth knowing, which is to say he doesn't know why there are Nazi Zombies (or ghosts, the film never gets around to clearing that up) killing everybody. The cast thins, the script tries to build tension by introducing truly pointless set-pieces like putting the number of survivors on a flag, and then it ends with everyone dying because you can't kill ghosts.

It came as absolutely no surprise to learn that Neil Marshall was once attached to direct Outpost. This was clearly dreamt up as a ringer for Dog Soldiers in its production design and general feel, but it has none of that film's originality, action or off-beat humour. Steve Barker and most of the supporting cast are british, which may explain why this movie felt like a BBC historical drama rather than a proper horror film: mannered and subdued. Nothing is scary, people die cause that's what happens in horror films, and it feels like Barker didn't want to slow down for too long or people might get the idea that this film is totally pointless. Like Dog Soldiers and Day of the Dead there's a lot of bravado, and Ray Stevens is there doing his 'been through hell' thing but its toned way the hell down for some reason, like they thought depth was going to get in the way of their trying to break the landspeed record for a ghost film (or a zombie film, in fact this next sentence is going to address that question). Ok, so in the ghosts category, we have the indestructible, disappear at will, 60 years old aspect and in the zombies category we have their vulnerability to knives and guns, their decaying personage and that this is clearly a Day of the Dead ripoff which manages to ripoff Dog Soldiers and Shock Waves and that super terrible 13 Ghosts remake in its downtime. So what are they? Who cares.

The only thing I really remember being really worthy of some serious irk is that ghost nazi evaporating machine which should have been more absurd than it was. Ultimately though its the sepia-toned averageness of this film that makes what could have been a loony ride through ripoff town into a lifeless 80 minutes where guys fire guns because the producer paid for a movie with guns, dammit! It's really not worth the money they spent on it and I can't remember much of anything about it. It's a really dull film that makes an absolutely bonkers thing where the African guy has his brains pushed out of his head as if by pneumatic press just seem totally uninteresting.
Ok, on to the good stuff. The next film isn't all good, but its based on a good idea and despite it seeming at times like a video game, I was entertained.

by Toby Wilkins

Seth and Polly are a completely unlikely couple out on a camping trip. Seth is a biologist (HINT!) and Polly is big into the outdoors. Seth would really rather be in a hotel because he's a total nerd who would never have a girlfriend like Polly in ten thousand years and he finally gets his nerdy way when they break their tent trying to set it up. Meanwhile down the road on Plot Convenience Boulevard, Dennis the convicted murderer and his girlfriend Lacey push the corpse of their truck off the road to cover their tracks while they search for a new vehicle. Dennis is a crazy killer with a southern accent and his girlfriend is a drug addict about to lose it; bet this goes well. After commandeering Polly's truck at gunpoint and pointing it towards Canada, a minor accident sets the film proper in motion. Polly runs over what would appear to be a dog or a fox or something; appearances can be decieving, or anyway they have to be because whatever it was popped their rear tire with about a thousand little prickers and cut a hole in the coolant tank. Dennis gets one in his pointer finger by accident.

Lacey chooses now to go thoroughly off the rails and insists that the thing they ran over is some pet or other that must have died a little while ago. Dennis tells her she's crazy, but she insists on dragging Seth at gunpoint to look at the corpse. Her instructions "Save it!" are disconcerting to say the least; apparently his telling her that he's not a medical doctor didn't quite sink in. The spiny corpse of the orange furred animal leaps at them in an apparent reflexive spasm but it scares the bejesus out of both Lacey and Seth. The gang stops at a gas station for food and something to stop the car from overheating further. Lacey runs to the bathroom (to vomit if I don't miss my guess) and finds a man lying face up on the bathroom floor with much bigger spikes coming out of his skin. Before she can convince her boyfriend that what she was in fact not a hallucination, the man, apparently possessed comes out of the rest room and sticks her full of the splinters, killing her instantly. The man then jumps on the hood of Polly's truck and falls asleep while Dennis, Polly and Seth run into the gas station and lock the doors.
Now starts the stuff that feels like it was cribbed from Resident Evil or Parasite Eve rather than just the usual two or three classic horror films. Dennis goes outside to check on his girlfriend and Polly locks him out of the gas station. Seth, being a total pushover, lets him back in when Lacey starts contorting in all kinds of inhuman ways just like the spiky fella on the hood of the car or that dead animal on the road. Seth and Dennis close the door, but cut off one of Lacey's hands in the process, which gets up and walks around for a few seconds before dying. Lacey or whatever's left of her, starts banging against the door like a dog trying to be let in. Seth the biologist begins theorizing. The hand tried metabolizing and each part is in service to whatever it is that's controlling it so he surmises that some kind of fungus is at work. Incidentally, the closest thing to what Seth dreams up is a Cordyceps fungus which literally alters the minds of insects and sends a phallic body out of the insect's skeleton that sends spores into the air to infect more insects nearby. It tells the insect to climb branches to ensure that the spores have a wider range when they burst from the tip of the body. There's one for just about every kind of insect in jungle environs and its the only thing that comes close to matching the description of the splinter fungus. Thank you, Sarah, for that tip.

While Seth tries to understand more about their foe, a cop in a patrol car stops by, presumably drawn in by the sight of a corpse on the hood of a car. She recognizes Dennis by sight (not bloody likely; he's wanted for a minor crime in another state) and doesn't respond to Seth and Polly's warnings. Dennis knows he has only seconds so he tries to convince her to call it in instead of standing outside with her gun drawn. She has enough time to put her finger on the radio before Lacey literally cuts her in half, leaving her legs and the radio on the ground. The handset of the radio is close enough that Seth thinks he can reach it with some coat hangers tied on end and put through the cash slot, but that idea yields nil results. All it buys them is another hand in the gas station chasing them around until they're forced to hide in the freezer. As if that weren't enough, that splinter in Dennis' finger has spread all over his arm and the only answer is cut it off with a box cutter (I know!). That bomb defused, Seth goes back to theorizing and figures out one crucial factoid about the fungus that may save them from spiny bondage. Add gasoline and you've got yourself a riveting conclusion.

One thing I give this film credit for is moving quickly enough that its faults don't seem like faults until after its over. At 86 minutes, writer/director Toby Wilkins keeps the horrific contorting images coming and only slows down to explain the crucial sciency thing or desperate scheme that's going to propel our heroes into the next scene. I was kind of bummed because the only character I thought was realistic and not a total archetype was Lacey and she doesn't make it past the half-hour mark. The shortcomings are mostly in the writing and once they do hit you, they're pretty glaring, but in a fun kind of way. I call it a big coincidence that one third of the crew trapped by a fungal mind beast happens to have the education required to outsmart it. The arm thing was my biggest problem, which is good news when you grand scheme it. Someone cuts my arm off with a fucking box cutter (and finishes the job with a cinderblock), that's game over as far as I'm concerned. No way am I operating fire arms or telling jokes over beer. I was just starting to get over a total nerd like Seth scoring a girl like Polly when they pulled that stunt. And his character was already really hackneyed anyway, the gruff criminal who's really an ok guy with a story to tell and a widow he's going to repay (the final interaction between Dennis and the other two was almost too much sappiness to handle). Granted an impromptu amputation with a rusty box cutter is like David Cronenberg-sick and I was not at all prepared for that. That moment alone makes this film really quite intense and on that bit alone I'd recommend it. Luckily there's some other cool stuff in here, like the monster.

I was excited when I started seeing ads for this cause I thought it was going to be a zombie film and it sort of is, but it's also more than that. A fungus causing the dead to rise is a point in the zombie category, but beyond that we're dealing with a whole new ballgame. It does look nothing like an ordinary human after the fungus gets control of the human host and it also attacks animals, so this isn't your ordinary zombie film. When it's in its final incarnation thrashing around the aisles of the gas station, that's when it's most like a video game monster. It looks like Cirque de Soleil as imagined by Ken Russell in the late 70s and its pretty cool. It, and the film as a whole, owes more to The Thing (what with the jumping hand and monster-person fusion) and a japanese film called Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People (with its fungi-based possession) than a regular zombie film, but undead is undead and for that reason here it is, warts and all.
Splinter is a very fun and unsettling film and its flaws actually help its watchability rather than hinder it. Compare it to something like Outpost, made for easily twice the cost with none of the imagination and the victor is obvious. When the choice is between a group of heavily armed men (or horny teens for that matter) doing anything and two or three average (relative term) characters in a small, realistic setting battling something outlandish and cool, I'll almost always pick the smaller of the two projects. You can always do more when you try to do less; George A. Romero knows that and so does Toby Wilkins. At least both of these films are better than Dead Snow.


Carl (ILHM) said...

Outpost = awesome, great reviews, thoroughly enjoyed both films! Too bad Wilkins got attached to Grudge 3..

Scøut said...

Yes, well money runs the game in this country. Not a damn thing we can do about that except make our own films.