Friday, July 20, 2007

Altered (2006)

A group of angry rednecks capture a little green alien, meaning to wreak vengeance upon it in response to their abduction fifteen years prior. This premise sounds like the stuff of low comedy, something Larry the Cable Guy might agree to star in, yet writer/director Eduardo Sanchez (one of the two guys who directed The Blair Witch Project) does the unexpected: He takes the premise dead seriously. There are some laughs, but they arise out of the surprisingly careful characterization or, occasionally, the grim absurdity of the situation. (One character asking for a beer as he's bleeding to death shows these two points nicely dovetailing.) It's interesting how well the characters are painted here; there's ample opportunity to paint these guys as standard-issue ig'nant hicks, yet Sanchez prefers to treat them as rounded individuals -- they're crass, vulgar and occasionally unintelligent yet always sympathetic, and their actions are not without reason. Sanchez, in this aim, is lucky enough to be working with some fine actors; Adam Kaufman brings spectacular intensity and resolve to the lead character of Wyatt, while Paul McCarthy-Boyington (as Cody), Brad William Henke (as Duke) and Michael Williams (also a Blair Witch alumnus, as Otis) are also quite impressive as the group's id, ego and superego, respectively. Furthermore, Sanchez proves that, even after a long hiatus, his skills for building tension and maintaining atmosphere are undiminished. So it's a shame, then, that the film collapses in its third act. Despite some good moments (Cody gruesomely falling prey to the alien's mind-control abilities is a queasy highlight), the film runs aground following plot threads into unresolved dead-ends (like the half-hearted subplot about Wyatt's "alteration" at the hands of the aliens) and eventually resorting to blowing everything up even though it's explicitly stated that doing so is a really, really bad idea. Sanchez shows enough talent to shake off any notion of Blair Witch being a fluke, but Altered has to be tagged a near-miss anyway.

Grade: C+
Wait Until Dark (1967)

[Requested by Jenny Sekwa.]

Or, a climax in search of a film. The last twenty minutes or so of this famed thriller are as fine as anything in the genre, with maybe the best jump scare ever. Plus there's Alan Arkin turning in a strikingly hammy performance as a psycho terrorizing poor blind Audrey Hepburn. However, Hepburn's performance, Oscar-nominated as it is, is wholly uneven -- she swings between believable (i.e. her scenes with Richard Crenna) and stilted. The latter adjective particularly describes much of her work in the film's first half-hour, as she tries to waver between happy, frightened, confident and annoyed, occasionally within the space of a couple lines of dialogue. The overwritten, archly theatrical dialogue she's given doesn't help either -- very few people could deliver, "I'll be the one reading Peter Rabbit in Braille," and have it sound like something a human being could conceivably say. The plot is sharp from a tension-building standpoint but is full of contrivances; I know most thrillers are on some level contrived, but the test of quality is how well the plot convinces me to overlook these stretches, and here I was never convinced. As Roger Ebert pointed out upon the film's initial release, the whole film would have been nullified if only Hepburn had locked her goddamn door. Wait Until Dark is never particularly bad -- it's well-constructed from a technical standpoint, and it leads into a fabulous cat-and-mouse ending, but that doesn't excuse its hackneyed nature. It is, at bottom, sharply made dross.

Grade: C+
Thirst (1949)

Another early work by Ingmar Bergman, Thirst has the distinct honor of being the first film in its illustrious director's career that could have been made by nobody else -- adaptation or no, this is a Bergman film, through and through. The tenuous, frustrated attempts at connection, the despairing spirituality and damaged sexuality, the crisp, grim poetry of the black and white compositions: It all comes together for the first time here in a way that would define much of it's director's subsequent work. This film, in particular, introduces a lot of material (a fateful train ride, a relentless heat wave, a lesbian subtext) that would inform The Silence (which I really, really need to see again). Thirst is a roundelay of emotional and sexual dissatisfaction that orbits around mentally fragile ex-dancer Rut and her husband Bertil. The dancer (the central character) is flighty, distractible and often childish, with a penchant for overindulgence in alcohol and mental cruelty; as such, her almost pathological inability to see beyond herself reflects in the various relationships Bergman shows us. There's a leering psychiatrist who wants his patient to admit that her whole life "has been one long mistake"; said patient later meets an old female classmate who attempts, very clumsily, to seduce her with bad results. The tension built up in the film's various threads erupt in a series of surreal climactic tableaux; the most striking of these (a chase down a smoke-and-fog-laden train corridor) seems informed by Jean Epstein's The Fall of the House of Usher, which is an interesting reminder that Bergman's mise-en-scene often creeps closer to full-on Expressionism than many are willing to allow. Bertil proclaims relationships to be "a sea of tears and misunderstandings," which is as close to a thesis statement as you'll get from this film. The title implies a longing, a desire for something missing. On the evidence here, Bergman's characters will forever be parched.

Grade: B

Monday, July 16, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Suitably streamlined, this distillation of J.K. Rowling's mammoth fifth book in the boy wizard series, despite apparent popular opinion, represents a step up from the ghastly hash of Goblet of Fire. There's significantly less action in this chapter than some of the others, but I don't see that as a bad thing; the disinclusion of Quidditch, to me, is only an improvement, and the emphasis on dialogue and character over spectacle provides room to start caring about the fates of these characters (a valuable thing, considering some dire fates are reportedly in store). The lack of flash also allows the mind to consider the emphasis on political turmoil and upheaval in this installment and how that serves to reflect the emotional turmoil experienced by Harry, both due to torment by Voldemort and the mere fact of his being a hormonally whacked-out fifteen-year-old boy. Besides, there's Imelda Staunton's marvelously priggy Dolores Umbridge as compensation -- her grinningly grotesque depiction of cheerful institutional malevolence is far more inspiring than any special effect. When the FX come -- and they do, in a thrilling wizardly battle royale capped off by a duel between Voldemort and Dumbledore -- they're impressive, but it's the human moments (Harry's response to his first kiss, Hermione awkwardly connecting with Hagrid's giant cousin, Ron's ever-increasing facility with Britslang) that are going to stick with me. It's not quite on the level of Alfonso Cuarón's fanciful and fluid Prisoner of Azkaban, but its sense of driving professionalism, accomplished without tipping over into facelessness (i.e. the Columbus films), keeps it compelling.

Grade: B
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2007)

Sharp and knowledgable meta-slasher film about an aspiring monster who hires a camera crew to document his preparations for his upcoming killing spree. Comparisons to Man Bites Dog are inevitable, but this is cheery where that film was bleak. Much of the credit for that goes to Nathan Baesel, who plays the title character as an intelligent and enthusiastic Type-A personality -- you get the feeling that, had he harnessed that energy differently, he coulda been a hell of a salesman. (Which makes sense, since Vernon is, in essence, selling himself and his own created mythology.) Writers Scott Glosserman & David J. Stieve are relentlessly clever in hitting every possible slasher film cliche as part of Vernon's grand design, whether explaining the usefulness of cardiovascular health for would-be slashers or delving into the sexual symbology of the weaponry and surroundings he'll be utilizing (the influence of Carol Clover's Men, Women and Chainsaws grows wider every year); Glosserman also directs with confidence, switching between the verite reality-show style and the more polished modern-slasher style as necessary. It's a consistently amusing lark for slasher fans with a twist in the tail that's really quite neat. There's a feint at subtext about why we need monsters in an age of cynicism that unfortunately goes unexplored (if it had been followed out, we might be talking about the film of the year); nevertheless, Behind the Mask remains an exemplary pisstake on the slasher film while ultimately turning itself into an exemplary slasher film.

Grade: B+
The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)

Sumptuous, justly famous melodrama about a rich countess, the general who is her husband, the baron who is her lover and a much-bandied pair of diamond earrings fascinates in that director Max Ophüls's visual obsession with the surface of things perfectly reflects the surface-level feelings of his characters and how everything goes wrong when those affections get below the surface. (Like the love between the baron and the countess, it's only superficially superficial.) As such, it's interesting to note how the significance of the earrings changes each time they find their way back to Danielle Darrieux's countess -- they start as a superfluous signifier of a dead marriage, but by film's end they've transformed into a painful token of the only love Madame de... has ever known. The arc of the film is pure melodrama, but it's put forth wonderfully by careful, knowing characterization and some splendid acting on the parts of Darrieux, Charles Boyer (as the general) and Vittorio de Sica (as the baron). Plus, the film's just bloody gorgeous. The long seductive sequence, in particular, where the countess and the baron fall in love over a series of dances is spectacular, time compression at its finest.

Grade: A-
Smokin' Aces (2007)

A strange, strange film: One one hand, Joe Carnahan's hyperbolic neo-noir pastiche fits pretty comfortably into the obnoxious lad genre that has given us films like Snatch and Lucky Number Slevin, but on the other hand, it often functions as an autopsy of said genre. For one thing, it's a film that treats death not as something to be used for sport but to be respected and feared -- the killings in this film are generally brutal, painful and bloody, infused with a sad fatalism ("We're all dying.") that takes the smirking nihilism promised by the flashy, exposition-drenched opening fifteen minutes and turns it inside out. Even in a situation where Carnahan finds humor in death -- say, the scene where one of the neo-Nazi punks carries on a conversation with a recently deceased man by working his jaw like a puppet -- it's of a darker, more plaintive stripe than one usually finds in this genre (the punk is asking the dead man for forgiveness). But the general depiction of the neo-Nazis, outsized and grotesque as they are, is symptomatic of how Carnahan trips up his own material by offering concessions to the perceived audience. Whenever he goes for the flashy wackiness, like with the Nazis or the intolerable Ritalin kid, it rings hollow like his heart's not in it. He's trying to do something different within the confines of the cooler-than-thou shoot-em-up, and I appreciate that, but the mash-up between hyperstyle and ruminatory depression is an ill fit; Carnahan is to be commended for recognizing that, even in disposable films like this, actions should still have consequences, but it's a shame he didn't apply that to his vacillating tone. Only the last ten minutes, when Carnahan makes a rare nod to the concept that there are things, larger forces, at work beyond the hermetic character-driven worlds often set up within this genre, leading up to a devastating act of free will by a character no longer interested in serving the needs of the labyrinthine plot, really sing. The crushed look on said character's face in the film's last shot almost makes the film worth the slog. (Jason Bateman's invaluably funny performance, self-deprecatory in an ocean of macho, also deserves notice.)

Grade: C+
Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy (1964)

Another slice of goofy Mexican wrestling madness from Rene Cardona, director of Doctor of Doom and Night of the Bloody Apes. This delivers exactly what its wonderfully reductive title promises -- there are wrestling women, and there's an Aztec mummy. They don't meet up until the last twenty minutes of the movie, but there's plenty of silliness to be had even before it comes time for the bug-eyed rotten beastie to lumber around and occasionally turn into The World's Phoniest Bat(TM). There's plenty of wrestling action and gloriously goofy dubbed dialogue and evil Oriental guys in black sunglasses. Above all, there's Tommy, the squat police officer/paramour of the Amazonian Golden Rubi and one of the returning characters from Doctor of Doom. If he was my favorite thing about the previous film, unflappably incompetent as he was, his turn in Aztec Mummy is my favorite thing in any Mexican wrestling movie -- his persona has spun so far into cluelessness that he's a walking game of Exquisite Corpse. The conversation where he tries to convince the rest of the gang that there might be a bomb in a sombrero is one for the ages. Charming and innocent as can be, these movies are just too much fun.

Grade: B

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Fay Grim (2007)

I think I've finally figured out why Parker Posey annoys me so. I always thought it was because she was a terrible, tone-deaf actress, but given free reign to study her technique in Hal Hartley's latest film, it's not quite that. She actually has talent -- she's just used it to cultivate a veneer of ironic detachment that infects every role she takes. Her mannerisms and speech are aloof and knowingly stilted, and she never quite makes eye contact with anyone else in the film. In short, she's deliberately cut off -- her sense of detachment extends so far that she never seems to be relating with anyone else around her, and I just can't swing with that. In many regards, Hartley's quasi-sequel to his 1998 film Henry Fool is pretty fun -- his halting, stylized dialogue has as many off-kilter nuggets of joy as ever ("It's hard to tell through all the foreground debauchery"), the ever-escalating absurdity of the globetrotting situation is amusing in a wry sort of way and most of the actors are game. Jeff Goldblum, in particular, gives a spectacular turn that synthesizes his trademark mannerisms and Hartley's dry loopiness into a sort of befuddled dark menace that rivals his benchmark performance as Seth Brundle. It's almost worth watching the whole film just for the scene where he tries to explain to Posey the intricacies of world politics and undeclared war only to sum it up as, "Civilization, Fay... shit happens." Also, James Urbaniak and Thomas Jay Ryan reprise their roles from Henry Fool to great effect -- Urbaniak's quizzical stillness, his refusal to be surprised or moved by anything, is even funnier in this espionage context than it was in the domestic drama of Fool, and Ryan's boorish persona, though used sparingly, provides some great moments near film's end ("How goes the jihad, you cheap fuck?"). But if Fay Grim, like its predecessor, is wounded by Hartley's bizarre tendencies towards shtick and low humor (the scene with Fay and the cell phone set to vibrate, clumsy and obvious as it is, is the film's nadir), it's completely destroyed by the fact that it's built around the great sucking void that is Posey. She doesn't care to engage the material, so neither do we.

Grade: C
Knocked Up (2007)

Funny stuff, and exceedingly generous besides; Judd Apatow's films are textbook crowd-pleasers, not because they pander or stoop to the lowest common denominator but because his worldview is warm and inclusive. He loves all his characters, loves their failings and foibles and ugly bits as much as their positives. One might say he genuinely believes in the goodness of people. Even the more caustic and raunchy jokes here -- say, the running brutality of the beard jokes -- are posited as communication between friends and compatriots rather than true attempts to demean, much like the gay jokes in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. This giving nature, at times, take the teeth out of the situation; problems crop up only to be glossed over or instantly figured out. Still, I can't fault the guy for figuring out what works and running with it. Besides, this is some fucking funny shit, yo. "I feel like I'm gonna poke the baby in the head" -- genius.

Grade: B
Bug (2007)

The key, I think, to William Friedkin's ferocious record of mental deterioration is its rooting in the physical: Before everything goes haywire, Friedkin makes sure that we understand the reality in which all of this takes place. From the opening crane shot (certainly a sop to those who would complain about its eventual staginess, but also a fine way to orient the viewer as to the surroundings in which this will take place) to the staging of the actors in relation to each other, shifting to and fro without quite making contact, to the preponderance of bodily fluids (urine, mucus, sweat and tears all make prominent appearances), the first half of this film is devoted to providing a concrete, palpable reality which the second half can then blow apart. The dividing line is the sex scene between Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon (both of whom give fantastic, deranged performances) -- it's as intensely physical as any sex scene in recent memory, but there's also an emotional transference taking place, and it's here that Tracey Letts' script shifts its focus to the mental state rather than then the physical state of its two main characters. Madness, in Letts' world, is as communicable as any STD if you're open enough to it, and Judd's character is painted carefully enough that you can believe her seeing Shannon as her desperate last chance to have something right and good in her life. Eventually, everything goes gloriously nuts; Judd and Shannon's minds disappear completely into their own and each other's manias as their bodies are presumably further invaded by the "bugs" which Shannon insists are everywhere outside and inside his being. Progressively, the body becomes ravaged and blistered, a walking pile of meat to house the uncontrollable mind; that the film ends as it does is abrupt but entirely appropriate. Wonderfully creepy and paranoid stuff, this is.

Grade: B+
28 Weeks Later (2007)


Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's followup to Danny Boyle's sleeper hit 28 Days Later accomplishes in its opening minutes what Boyle's inexplicably overrated Romero rip couldn't do in the whole of its running time: It scared the hell out of me. Narrative quibbles aside -- and there are a couple, notably the Army's puzzling attempt at a quarantine -- Juan Carlos succeeds in crafting a tense, quick and brutal tale that, for me, ranks as the most unnerving theatrical experience I've had since Twentynine Palms. The celebrated sniping-the-crowd setpiece is probably the film's most effective and disturbing, but the bit that's really stuck with me is Don's fateful kiss with his wife -- the film's whole world of guilt and consequence hinges upon that simple, tragic smooch. The kiss is an attempt to repair things, an expression of love and apology and hope for future forgiveness, and it turns into terror and madness. Even more so than the explicit parallels to current world situations, it's this metaphorical, deeply emotional representation of good intentions thrown awry by self-interest and situational misunderstanding that has burned into my mind. 28 Weeks Later is a deeply frightening and deeply disturbing vision of the world torn apart by people who only mean well. Also: Best use of night-vision cinematography I've seen in maybe ever.

Grade: A-

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Gravedancers (2006)

On the strength of Mike Mendez's amusing splatstick debut The Convent, I'd been looking forward to his followup feature. Now that it's finally here and I've seen it, all I can muster is a hearty, "So what?" Mendez is working in a more serious vein with The Gravedancers, the overt comedy of The Convent replaced by creeping dread and a quietly droll sense of humor, and I can't fault him for that. In terms of technical aspects, the film is good enough to mark Mendez as worth keeping an eye on. Neither can the artistic design team be faulted -- the cinematography is appropriately moody and dark, and the makeup effects are first-rate. (The little-boy ghost is especially creepy.) So it's not how it looks that's the problem, it's how it sounds. The screenplay, though obviously penned by two guys with much affection for the genre (note the occasional clever skirting of cliche and tweaking of convention -- this is the first horror film I've seen in years in which someone suggests that the characters not split up), is full of hackneyed dialogue and goes light on character work, substituting sketches for insight. In cases like this, a crew of good actors can fill in the blanks with unspoken understanding; more often, though, such faults are further exacerbated by stiff stars, which is the case here. The worst offender is the lead actor -- the credits tell me that his name is Dominic Purcell, but I know it's really Old Chief Wood'nhead under an alias. So what we have is slight, dull characters portrayed by slight, dull actors. Not for nothing, but the only character I gave a crap about was Culpepper, the assistant to Tchéky Karyo's paranormal psychologist; not only is she cute and smart, but she gets most of the good laugh lines. The last twenty minutes or so are effective, and Karyo gets a great closing line; shame then about the other hour-ten.

Grade: C

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Science of Sleep (2006)

Half good and half crap, this dollop of whimsy from Michel Gondry lacks some of the grounding darkness of his other dollops of whimsy. It's really quite intolerable for its first hour or so; all cutesy-poo and sugary "charm," it comes off uncomfortably like a flailing apologia for/endorsement of Gael Garcia Bernal's emotionally stunted man-child Stepháne and his grating fantasy world -- call it The Secret Life of Walter Shitty. Gradually, though, Gondry drops the pretense, gets behind the shiny surface that Stepháne presents, and what was a solipsistic film evolves into a film about solipsism. Gondry burrows in, shows us the rage and melancholy that lies at the base of Stepháne's regressive desires -- the whole "capturing seconds" scene, magical as it is, speaks to the frustration present when one realizes that we can't go back, that time is fleeting and sometimes that which is done can't be undone. The offbeat effects work, in which every seam is meant to show, also progresses from mere whimsy into something more interesting -- the idea seems to be the disconnect between seeing something for what it is and for what we desire it to be. There's so much discomfiting goodness in the film's second half that it seems a shame that it's attached to the first half, but there you go.

Grade: B-
Once (2007)

Modest charmer manages a fine balance of sweet/spiky so effortlessly that I wonder why it's not done more often. It drifts in, does its thing, and gets out of the way with no complaints from me. Acting is surprisingly good as well, considering both leads are musicians by trade. The true triumph here, though, is the music -- despite the fact that it's the kind of lung-ripping emo-folk that can strike me as very hit or miss, there's not a weak song in the bunch, and they're all seamlessly integrated into the narrative; the first studio scene, where the band tracks "When Your Mind's Made Up," is on the early shortlist for best scene of the year. Shame about the shite camerawork, though -- people, low-grade digital video is NOT THE FUTURE.

Grade: B
The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006)

All art is subjective, so I think it says something for Jeff Feuerzeig's documentary about famed outsider artist Johnston that it kept my attention even as the appeal of Johnston's music eluded me. Any man who writes and sings the line, "In my head there is a negative Superman," probably has a compelling life story; what impresses about Feuerzeig's film is that it doesn't shy away from the ugly parts of Johnston the man even as it seems reverential towards his music. Time and again, we see that the art which issues forth from Johnston is spurred by some deeply disturbing mental difficulties, the most harrowing of which is a story related by his father about an encounter with Casper the Friendly Ghost on a small commuter airplane; this story ends on a note of irony so perfect that it had to be true. Feuerzeig is also helped out by Johnston's own inexhaustible urge to document himself, as a good deal of the film is filled with archived audio tapes and old film wherein Johnston sings, rants and does whatever. Artists like Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Vincent Van Gogh are cited in comparison, and the last one seems especially appropriate given the examination of where the line between genius and insanity begin to blur. The film occasionally tries too hard to be as offbeat as its subject (why is the Butthole Surfers' Gibby Haynes interviewed while in a dentist's chair?), but overall it's genuinely sad and worthy stuff.

Grade: B
American Hardcore (2006)

Lively punk-rock documentary that covers the first wave of hardcore punk (roughly 1980 to 1985). Director Paul Rachman tries to be as concise and informative as one can be within 90 minutes, and for the most part he succeeds -- while one wonders where the stranger offshoots of hardcore are (surely, for instance, the Butthole Surfers deserve a mention?), Rachman does a fine job of touching on a good majority of the major bands from the era. The real draw here is the reams of ferocious live footage; the talking heads fill in the history, but it's in the performances that one understands the energy, the release, the sheer manic appeal of what at first blush can be an off-putting genre of music. Ian Mackaye sums up both the thrust and the appeal of the film quite nicely when he says, "We were kids goin' wild, and I thought the music perfectly represented that." Also: Former Pantera/current Superjoint Ritual lead singer Phil Anselmo is so far gone that it's frightening.

Grade: B+
District B13 (2006)

I admit, I haven't seen this film in full. Don't get me wrong -- I watched it from beginning to end. But the copy I managed to procure was sans subtitles. I'm gonna go ahead, though, and assume I didn't miss any big plot subtleties or nuances, since by the looks of it this Luc Besson production is about as elemental as action gets. The bad guys have a warhead, the good guys have to stop them, and there's another level of conspiracy above it all -- what else do you need to know for the film to work? An asskicking is the universal language, and the parkour-heavy fight scenes in B13 are awesome regardless of the nationality or comprehensibility of the flying feet. (Of particular note is the penultimate fight wherein the two heroes take on a massive Easten European fella named The Yeti; the capper, where one of the heroes flies through the air wielding a brick, is rewind-worthy.) This is, of course, what Besson has been working towards all his career -- action cinema as a neutral language, multiple-nation influences combined to create a work understandable in every part of the world. It's encouraging, in a way, to know that his tireless work hasn't been in vain.

Grade: B-
Performance (1970)

Echoes of Persona ripple throughout this bizarre allegory about the relationship between identity and celebrity, but Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg depart from Bergman's ruminatory angst, opting instead for a splintered mania that reflects the fracturing of the psyches of both violent gangster Chas (James Fox) and elusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger). This reflection between theme and content is similarly reflected in the film's obsession with reflected images -- the opening credits alone involve a car polished so shiny that people are seen in its gleam and a blowjob given in front of a mirror. It's a film of upheaval, of transformation and abandonment, with two characters defined by their vocations attempting to wall themselves off and leave society behind. (I saw this in the same week I saw The Passenger; musta been something in the air that week...) Whiplash editing and nimbly hallucinatory direction serve to provide an external expression of the disorientation gone through by both Chas and Turner as they are gradually destabilized in regards to themselves, and the plot fades in and out as it leads to a climax that is a literal mind-blower. (Chas says early on before shooting someone, "I am a bullet," which is a more crucial line than it first appears, given the nature of the ending.) Also: Jagger is really quite good here, and his "Memo from Turner" scene is a highlight.

Grade: B+
Burn! (1969)

If Gillo Pontecorvo's extraordinary The Battle of Algiers is historical recreation written with fire and lightning, this subsequent film, the last he would make for ten years, is historical allegory written with smoke and fog. Marlon Brando turns in a powerful and charismatic performance (even with the overdubbing), but Pontecorvo never quite gets a handle on his material, so that what should strike home with the force of a mallet instead floats right on by. Some solid moments, but it doesn't cohere into the statement it so desperately wants to be.

Grade: C+
Reeker (2005)

Scrappy little thing about a group of lost travelers holed up at an abandoned truck stop; eventually, they're besieged by a mysterious murderous phantom who, um, don't smell so good. It's a film of modest ambition -- director Dave Payne neither needs nor wants to change the current default template for direct-to-video horror (a bunch of people in a remote location picked off by something evil, a la Friday the 13th or The Evil Dead). Rather, he's interested in how to make an effective movie within the parameters of that stock situation. Early on, the strict adherence to standard character types (the Jerk, the Spacey Gal, the Final Girl, the Sympathetic Cripple) grates, especially whenever Trip (the Jerk) mocks blind guy Jack or natters on about the stash of Ecstasy he's stolen from a twitchy former doctor (a cameoing Eric Mabius). Gathers steam as it goes, though, with some surprising no- budget atmosphere, decent FX work on the title beastie and a couple interesting character wrinkles (like Trip turning out to be a resourceful thinker underneath the assholeishness). Plus, it pulls off A Certain Ending, an ending that almost never works, simply by not overtly telegraphing it, which makes you wonder why more people interested in That Certain Ending aren't more sidelong about it. Not world-changing, but a nice oasis of promise in the midst of the sea of dross that comprises the direct-to-video horror landscape.

Grade: B-