APRIL 1, 2008
No it’s not an April Fool’s joke (I did enough of those on my other sites): the After Dark film Mulberry St. is by far the best they have offered this year (so far) and ranks up there with Gravedancers as the best film with any sort of ties to the company (don’t forget non-festival offerings like Skinwalkers and Captivity!), period.
It’s also one of the few films in the festival (good or bad) that I can genuinely dub “independent”. Unearthed, or even Gravedancers, don’t really strike me as independent films. They have big actors (well, big for horror films), budgets of a million or more, myriad producers, etc. To me, an independent film is one that quite frankly wouldn’t be made if the director decided not to do it, populated with people you haven't seen in Saw sequels. If Matt Leutwyler decided to walk off Unearthed, once Emmanuelle Vaugier and Luke Goss had already signed on to do it, you can bet that someone else would take his place. But if director Jim Mickle (who wrote the film along with Nick Damici, who plays the lead) gave up on it, it’s pretty likely that Mulberry would never be completed. And that would be a shame.
Ostensibly a zombie movie, Mickle does a good job of selling the idea that New York is under quarantine. Since he’s not exactly Francis Lawrence, he can’t really shut down whole areas of the city, so he sells these ideas via a near constant stream of news and TV broadcasts that mix footage from what I assume is from 9/11, the blackout, etc., along with standard “quick no one’s around let’s film this street” type stuff. It works well. Most of the action is confined to a single apartment building, and thus doesn’t require such extravagant shots like a deserted Times Square in order to get the point across.
The cast is a huge part of that success. With one exception, I don’t doubt for a second that any of these characters (mostly blue collar types) are genuine, hard-working New Yorkers who get caught up in a horror movie plot. Damici in particular is a fantastic lead, and carries the film effortlessly. Big actors wouldn’t work for this particular movie. I always hate when I’d see a Schwarzenegger movie that tried to pass him off as a regular family/working man (like 6th Day), because there’s no way in hell I can believe him as anything but a larger than life character. Even a character actor like Ed Harris wouldn’t be as effective in this particular film, because it would be harder to sell the whole “New York is quarantined” idea. I know Ed Harris is not a New Yorker (well, maybe he is, but you know what I mean), so I’d be less inclined to believe he was trapped in Harlem without being able to actually SEE the city being closed off. But this guy, who I don’t know from Adam? I buy it. Even Larry Fessenden, the patron saint of indie horror, pops up in a quick cameo, and it doesn’t distract from the illusion.
The only exception is the girl playing his daughter. While not a bad actress per se, she didn’t really feel as genuine as the others, seeming more like an actress playing a role than an actual person (ironic since her resume is one of the less prolific – hell, I’ve actually SEEN Damici in other films and didn’t recognize him). Her scenes also take place around the city, and in these scenes the small budget and obvious lack of an actual quarantine begin to become a bit more apparent. Luckily, the apartment stuff takes up the bulk of the film, so it’s not really a big deal.
It’s also smartly paced. The first 40 minutes are like old Cronenberg in a way, with just the feeling of impending dread instead of in your face gore sequences. We just see these guys going about their day, with minor mentions of rat problems and such sort of presented in the background. Then the 2nd half of the film (it’s only 82 minutes long, hurrah!) is an almost nonstop series of ‘zombie’ attacks (they’re more like the ratty vampire things from Dusk Till Dawn), and despite the low budget, we are treated to some good action and gore. Not to mention some unique cinematography; there’s a great camera angle from the top of a door that the monsters are trying to open, so the shot slides back and forth along with the budging door. Nice stuff.
It’s also one of the few modern horror movies to deal with any sort of social commentary. Greedy land developers and such are given their due, the heroes of the film are hard-working blue collar types who are just trying to survive. Sure, it’s hardly original, but since so few modern horror films (especially the ones Mulberry is lumped with) have anything to say, it SEEMS original.
The DVD comes with what seems like a substantial amount of extras, but sadly they are not really much to write blogs about. The video quality is poor on several, resulting in a “What the hell am I looking at?” feeling on the outtakes and makeup test portions. A pair of deleted scenes are wisely cut, and the sketches/storyboards are only of minor interest. Still, the film itself is the real bonus. This is exactly the type of film After Dark SHOULD be releasing (in the festival or not) – true independent films that would be otherwise lost on the video shelves without the promotion AD gave them. You think something like Tooth And Nail, with Michael Madsen, Vinnie Jones, etc. would completely disappear if not for After Dark? No way in hell. But movies like this, with no stars, no big effects to promote, etc.? If I wasn’t watching a horror movie every day I’d probably never give it a second glance. Hopefully, if they do a 3rd festival, AD seeks out more truly independent films like Mulberry and gives them the recognition they would not only otherwise not receive, but undeniably deserve.
What say you?