(2002) Dir. Neil Marshall
You think it's easy to be a straight white male, age 11-55, when it comes to movies, TV, and commercials? Watching a movie on Syfy like Underworld: Awakening for the 100th time, and still not liking it, but sticking with it because it quenches some weird fanboy desire for monsters, sex, violence and car crashes, a need catered to with pandering directness, punctuated with bro-demo-angling commercials for fantasy football gambling sites and chips flavored to taste like bacon. And then the movie itself, Kate Beckinsale all smokin' crystal blue eyes in a skin tight leather catsuit wielding twin .45 automatics. It's all for us, for our stunted adolescent minds.
Neil Marshall hopes for better. His first feature is the male version of his later, better-known DESCENT (2003): it's a gory, riveting but slightly cheeky werewolves vs. British infantry squad on maneuvers tale, a kind of SOUTHERN COMFORT meets the first 1/4 of AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, but like THE DESCENT it ends with an all-out stay alive brawl, dwindling down the numbers, until only the true toughies remain. The cast is great though, while they last, especially the cool-in-a-crisis, Max von Sydow-esque Pvt. Cooper (Kevin McKidd) and the bullet-headed badass Sgt. Harry Wells (Sam Pertwee, who's like Michael Caine, Jason Statham, and Bob Hoskins bolted together with oily lug nuts). Their manly rapport gives the film an adrenalin savagery-switchpoint boost where survival instinct and maximum de-civilized aggression provide an outside-the-box survivalist enlightenment. There's some great dialogue, like Wells' coaching of the lads in his squad: "I expect nothing less than gratuitous violence from each and every one of you!" We know the shifty MI-6 guy (Liam Cunningham) they stumble over is bad because not only did he shoot a dog, he kicks the guy who wouldn't out of his elite squad. Considering the shoddy treatment of dogs in horror films, I thought I should mention that. The bastard gets his comeuppance believe you me.
Right off the beginning it's clear that Marshall knows his small Hawksian ensemble dynamic, and takes advantage of the strengths of 'the group of professionals,' with fast, tight, believably rehearsed acting, a group who've clearly trained together, in ways we get from Kenneth Tobey and company in The THING but never quite got in Carpenter's all-male THE THING remake/update or anywhere else. There's even a Hawksian woman (Emma Cleasby - top), a local who takes the boys home to the rustic soon-besieged cabin. The thick old growth of mountainous Scotland makes ideal territory for the maneuvers, the sun ever setting behind thick moorish clouds, Marshall's camera swooping over all.
DESCENT Fans will already have seen and loved this movie--hopefully on the great Shout Blu-ray released last year, with the new cover art and a commentary track from Marshall; the HD pic quality is beautiful and cinematic but also perfectly retro analog - with just the right peppery grain in the darkness. These fans should note that in spots David Julyan's orchestral score sounds so much like his work in THE DESCENT that we'd have to think he was stealing motifs from himself, or paying homage. Either way, Julyan's one of the better modern orchestrators, though it's like pulling canines to get him to use his Carpenter synths for the next title on the Marshall oeuvre, the underrated DOOMSDAY, which seemed to have drained Marshall's DESCENT money with its big budget and scant earnings. So he's had to start over, with BBC TV and his only film being the forgettably familiar CENTURION, all fights and terrible bangs. In case you can't tell, I've got my eye on 'im.
(1980) Dir. Graydon Clark
There's a few things we need to get straight right now: this film has the worst excuse for woods in the entirety of horror. This barren stretch that constitutes the pre-Predator alien hunter's ground--an alleged woodland which includes lame hunters and innocent cub scouts on maneuvers--looks like the rough / water trap section of some LA golf course. In other words, if you watch FINAL TERROR (reviewed below) right before it as I did, with its great old growth and beautiful stark photography, the thoroughly second rate look of WITHOUT WARNING can be a tough adjustment. Carpenter cameraman Dean Cundey does deliver the decent Steadicam shots, but the L.A. scrub does not a convincing woods make, one can't imagine why on Earth scoutmaster Dick Van Patten would think it's an appropriate place for a long hike. And while David Caruso is one of the early-killed teens (killed during sex, that old schtick) his death is mostly off camera for some moronic reason. The script includes enough anti-hunting oratory to convince you someone on the script team doesn't like their conservative NRA father, embodied here in an unbearable and unconvincing hunter dad played by Cameron Mitchell like a blue collar Brooklyn goomba with a grudge against grouse, or grouse against grudge, or something, and possessed of some notion that dragging his peacenik son along on will make a man out of him. Apparently, it's grouse season, even if the landscape looks like all it might yield is a stray golf ball or trash thrown out a passing car.
The real liability (or strength depending on your frame of mind) is the utterly terrible acting of Christopher S. Nelson in the lead. The way he'll fall into the swing of a scene and be doing a good job but then catch himself and try to correct it by 'acting' makes him a great lesson to all would-be movie actors in the importance of 'being' instead of trying. It works though when he's supposed to be hysterical with fear and inaction, as his nervous confusion and hesitancy--as if needing to remember his line and say it beforehand in his head before speaking it--works for the emotional disorientation he's in after his van is attacked by flying Corman-esque bat creatures.
Things pick up once night falls: David Caruso is safely dead; the power goes out; the bartender lady lights the lamps and Landau starts telling lurid war stories with his face all illuminated from below by the lantern, all ghost story proper. The monster is cool, pre-dating PREDATOR in its murky motivations, and is held back from view awhile to drum up interest, as is proper and fair. All in all, if you're into this sort of thing, ignore the mediocre rating I give this. And just think of my reviews like alcohol blood percentage for ideal viewing, or other. Or other other... or other until all otherness has suffused the corners of your hauntologic memory. Many of this film's fans caught it on late night cable at an impressionable age. I never did. But I can pretend.
THE FINAL TERROR
(1983) Dir. Andrew Davis
**1/2To get into Without Warning (above) you need to forgive the paltry emaciated 'woods' and that the climax seems to occur in a backyard by a garden shed and just savor its Corman-like deadpan wit and devotion to the beloved tenets of monster movie formula. It's just the opposite with Andrew Davis's The Final Terror: One must let go of any conventional slasher film expectations and just soak up the brilliance of the outdoor photography, which turns a lush Northern California forest into a haunted house even as it refuses to follow the Friday the 13th -via- Ten Little Indians mold. It’s the tale of a camping trip up in the wilds of Northern California that turns mighty violent, with the chief suspect being a religiously uptight local boy played with the usual zest by Joe Pantoliano. But is that just red herring?
I can't spoil the events further except to note that the real modus operandi here seems to be that no slasher or slashers can stand a chance even in their home woods if the campers stick together and some of them have been in combat and/or basic training. Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) directs and does the cinematography and in each role he lets the woods cast its ominous enigmatic spell.
(2015) Dir Corin Hardy
**3/4Irish horror has been having a bit of a tonn nua in low budget state-funded cinema, drawing on the weird treeless landscape and rich history of Gaellic folklore to craft small chamber piece dramas where naturalistic art direction and low key lighting obscures the limitations of digital film and cast/crew sparsity. Newly stationed in one of the woodsy places in Ireland (I thought it 'twas all rolling treeless hills of moss and rocks punctuated by castles and hooligan-packed pubs), state-employed botanist Adam (Joseph Fawle), his wife Clare (Bojana Novakovic) and their baby move into a house at the edge of a forrest that the locals advise him not to wander in. There's fairies in there and if you intrude on their home they'll intrude on yours, warns the locals. And sure enough, ere long, that happens. With venom like the malignant cells in the 1981 THING, and full of tricks like swapping human babies with weird changelings, they're a weird bunch. But who believes auld legends these days? While the wife takes all the weird iron bars off from around the windows by day, to let in what passes for sunshine in Ireland, she's putting them back up by night, to keep out a relentless tribe of vindictive creatures, who in the Lovecraft tradition abduct children and turn them into their own, and vice versa.
In other words, there's a reason they said not to go into those damn woods, ya bómán! Ye Leathcheann!
The feature debut of Corin Hardy is not quite the resounding announcement of 'I am here, I am now!' horror genius we got with Jennifer Kent's BABADOOK or Robert Egger's THE WITCH or David Robert Mitchell's IT FOLLOWS, but it's only one tier down instead of the usual sixteen. It's the Charles Band to their Corman if that makes any sense (and it should since Band's team riffed on similar themes in a more direct Lovecraft, THE LURKING FEAR --unearth it on Hulu, home of the Charles Band Full Moon oeuvre!)
The monsters are interesting fusions of trees and people (like the 1951 THING), and the idea of the changeling is very subtle and creepily represented, as Clare must decide if her husband (mutating from woodland fairy venom infection), or the baby she dredged up from the bottom a lake in the middle of the night, is the same loved one from just hours ago. Despite semi-strange interludes toward the end (which decency forbids me to explain) everything is fairly believable and all fast moving in the kind of tight kinetic 'all in a single long afternoon-through-to-dawn' momentum that I'm always citing as the key to good horror. You might come away on mildly plussed when all's said and done but I know it kept me watching avidly, and isn't that the point? I didn't get up to refill my drink or have a slash once! So what if it doesn't leave you blown out of your socks if it keeps you from paddin' around in 'em? The lighting is moody (see above, right), the woods mysterious, dark, and deep, and the acting is terrific - I mean Novakovic and Fawle are committed, and at times they're more terrifying than the monsters crawling through their vents. And there's no gibbering rapists, claustrophobic abductions or general cruelty, all which I'm bloody sick of and easily traumatized by and go out of my way to avoid. I'm traumatized plenty just from walking down the street! Our world is bloody hell all on it's own. No wonder the trees want to leave. But in Ireland, aye, the trees seem to be coming back at last... le bhfeice!