Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Revenant (February 11th at the Cedar Lee Theatre)

[REVENANT screens Saturday February 11th at 11:59 pm at the Cedar Lee Theatre.]
Review by Bob Ignizio

Hollywood has never placed much of a premium on originality. The movie business is a business, and as such it prefers safe bets like remakes, sequels, and formulaic genre pictures. Now I'm far from a film snob, and I enjoy quite a lot of these films. But you need to have some fresh meat to throw into the grinder now and then, and no matter how hard I try to put it in perspective, it's hard not to see that the climate for original ideas in Hollywood is worse now than it ever has been.

This is particularly true in the horror genre, where the closest thing to a fresh concept we've seen in the last few years is to cross THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT with POLTERGEIST and then crank out a sequel every October (I'm talking about PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, in case you were wondering). That's why I have a soft spot for creative and fun independent horror films like THE REVENANT. Even when, as is the case here, they aren't entirely successful.

Veteran TV actor David Anders (The Vampire Diaries, 24, Alias, etc) plays Bart, a U.S. soldier who lets his conscience override caution while on patrol in the Middle East and winds up coming home in a coffin. He doesn't stay there long, though – he's now the revenant of the film's title, an undead creature somewhere between a vampire and a zombie. Understandably confused at his new state of existence, Bart turns to his morally challenged best friend Joey (Chris Wylde) for help.

Bart also has a girlfriend, Janet (Louise Griffiths), who is both happy and horrified to see the love or her life up and about again. It's clear that Bart, however, was ambivalent about their relationship even when he still had a pulse. Janet's nurse friend Matty (Jacy King) rounds out the main cast of characters, helping Bart figure out what he is and what he needs to do to continue his undead existence (drink blood) while also strongly warning Joey that he should destroy his ghoulish friend before things get out of hand.

Not wishing to kill anyone at first, Bart eventually decides it's okay to feed on criminals. Bart and Joey are soon heading out every night looking for suitable victims. The trail of carnage they leave in their wake earns them the nickname “The Vigilante Gunslingers” from the news media, which seems pretty cool at first, especially to Joey who asks Bart to bestow his “dark gift” on him as well. Eventually, though, Matty's warning comes true and things take a turn for the worse.

I did mention at the outset that one of the things I liked about THE REVENANT was its originality. That said, any serious horror fan probably can see the resemblance of the film's basic premise to Bob Clark's 1974 drive-in classic DEATHDREAM aka DEAD OF NIGHT. In that film, a Viet Nam vet who gets killed in action is wished back to life by his mother ala the well known horror tale The Monkey's Paw. DEATHDREAM, however, was primarily concerned with the ways war changed those who had lived through it, and how their return to the homefront affected those who had been left behind. THE REVENANT is more concerned with being a horror version of a “buddy” comedy with only a few minor attempts at social satire regarding religion and race relations. It may have a similar starting point, but it ultimately follows its own path, for better or worse.

Let's start with the good points. Director/writer/producer/editor Kerry Prior does a great job of getting the tone right, balancing horror, humor and heroics just about perfectly for most of the film. His biggest assets are his two leads who have real chemistry and comic timing together. Despite a background as a special effects technician working on such memorable genre flicks as A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET parts 3 and 4, the PHANTASM series, and even James Cameron's big budget underwater epic THE ABYSS, Prior keeps the special effects to a minimum here. What effects there are serve the story, and for the most part are done old school, avoiding CGI as much as possible.

On the downside, the relationship subplot with Janet is woefully underdeveloped, as is the character of Janet herself. She has only a handful of scenes, and they're spread out so far in the film that at times you almost forget she's part of the story. This aspect of the film either needed more to it, or should have been excised altogether.

The movie is also way to long at just a few minutes shy of 2 hours. It's not that any particular scenes cry out for removal, but something needs to go to improve the pacing. As it stands, the film kind of meanders around for its first hour and a half. Then towards the end it throws several new plot elements at us, but not only is it too late in the game for that, it winds up making the film seem unfocused and unsure about what it wants to be.

It all leads up to a climactic showdown that just kind of fizzles. I don't want to get into spoiler territory, so I'll just say I had no clue why things play out the way they do other than Prior wanted his story to go out with a bang. With a little more clarity this ending might have worked, but given the tone of the rest of the film, I think something less over the top and more melancholy would have been more appropriate. I feel a little bad criticizing this film, because in a lot of ways it's the kind of horror movie I'd like to see more of, and Prior and his cast and crew show a lot of talent. That doesn't change the fact that their finished product still falls short of its mark, though. 2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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