SEPTEMBER 21, 2009
While it is there to attract people, I was wary of Live Animals’ DVD cover’s “Fans of ‘Saw’ and ‘Hostel’ Will Cheer!” blurb, because I suspected that meant that the film was a bunch of torture scenes. No one ever brings Saw to mind when they see a clever mystery, or Hostel when they see a legitimately suspenseful modern horror movie. Thanks to ignorant critics and ripoffs, the two films are forever burdened with inspiring a wave of films that copied their least interesting elements, and then (worse), being accused of being just as bad.
Luckily, Live Animals has a bit more going for it than the Keepsakes and Captivitys of the world. For starters, it actually starts out as a slasher movie, with a guy in a clown mask and everything. Not a particularly great slasher movie, mind you, but I’ll take it over the umpteenth xenophobic “Tourists run afoul of ____” setup, or having them wake up in a dungeon without any memory of how they got there. Interestingly, there’s about 20 minutes worth of deleted scenes on the DVD, and most of them take place in this “slasher” section of the film, building the characters a bit and adding more traditional slasher movie elements (hiding in closets and such). I can’t help but wonder if they were left intact if people would be duped into thinking they were watching a traditional slasher, and have the real meat of the story come as a surprise. Hell, it might even have worked on me since I never read the back of the DVDs anymore (just the runtime and if time is a factor, the number of bonus features); if the quote on the front was just “It’s a horror movie!” I would have picked it up anyway and gotten a surprise.
The Hostel-y stuff isn’t very original - folks are kidnapped, “broken” like animals, and then sold as presumably willing slaves/whores. I’m sure it’s not far from the truth of what really goes on in certain areas of the world, so to Americanize it feels a bit more chilling. Thanks to the movies I am now convinced that wherever I go in the world someone will kidnap me and take my organs, or torture me for the hell of it, but in America? I only fear running afoul of backwoods cannibals or the occasional Blair Witch. This is scary!
For all my jokes though, it works better than most. For one thing, it’s grim as fuck. You know my old complaint about these movies (“Why are THESE characters the first to escape when their captors have been at it for so long?”), so I was happy to see an ending that felt correct. I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say it’s somewhere between the endings of the two Platinum Dunes versions of Texas Chainsaw.
I also like that screenwriter Jeremy Benson (who also directed) seems to have seen just as many of these things as I do, and while he isn’t really re-inventing the formula in any significant way, he is comfortable enough to play with certain elements of it. Again I don’t want to spoil (I’m really weird with what I will and won’t spoil, huh? Big studio movies that I see early - spoiled. DTV movies no one will see anyway - not spoiled), but if you are annoyed by the constant singing of the requisite “crazy prisoner”, there’s a nice little payoff to make up for it.
It’s also better than average on a technical level (and the music is quite good), but one thing bugged me - the 2.35:1 image. The movie was shot on HD and then downconverted to SD (if I am understanding the visual effects guy correctly), so the image itself isn’t the best (this could be the result of a poor DVD transfer too - Echo Bridge never really knocks anything out of the park in this department), but the “professional” scope image calls attention to it. At the 1.78 ratio, it wouldn’t even be noticeable - by now, I just accept that no one in the independent world uses film anymore and that the movies look lousy. But it seems they made the film 2.35 to give it that “bigger” feel, but all it does is make you realize how poor the image is in comparison to good ol’ fashioned film. Stick to your native HD aspect, leave ours alone!
The hour’s worth of bonus features are also worth a look. I already mentioned the deleted scenes (which are poorly edited - couldn’t they at least trim the cuts between shots so that we didn’t hear excess dialogue?), but the behind the scenes piece is interesting, as they discuss their no budget approach to certain plot elements (the “mask” that gets put on one of the characters was created out of random shit from Home Depot) and other matters. And I loved the approach for explaining the visual effects; the FX guy walks you through things like boom mic removal and green-screen compositing, showing us how each layer is broken down and how they fit together. It could have benefited from the usual sort of “here’s the entire shot as it was filmed, here’s how it looks before we fix anything, here’s how it looks in the final film” visual example at the end of the explanation, but it’s still a unique and far more educational approach to a standard DVD extra.
It’s actually a shame that because of companies like Echo Bridge and Lionsgate I will never run out of movies to watch. They release anything and everything, and movies like this that are actually worth a look and are made by people who possess some talent end up getting lumped in with shit like Dark Harvest and The Butcher. It may not have what it takes to compete with anything in theaters right now, but there should be some sort of in between arena for those films that aren’t good enough for multiplexes (in the general sense - this is better than Whiteout, but you know what I mean) but better than the usual piece of shit lining the shelves at Blockbuster. Ideally, there would be an independent multiplex that catered specifically to independent American narratives, instead of the usual imports and documentaries. That would be nice.
What say you?